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LED Lighting Makes Food Look More Appetizing

2011-11-07

The next time you shop for groceries, take a closer look at your fruits and vegetables. Hold them up and you may be surprised at their dazzling appearance. Grocers are now discovering a secret that jewelers and actors have known for years: lighting matters.

New kinds of LED lighting technology are invading retail stores with a dual purpose: saving energy and luring shoppers. And as old-style incandescent bulbs are being phased out by the U.S. government, the race for a replacement is on between LEDs and compact fluorescents.

"We're turning oranges into diamonds," said Paul Kelly, senior vice president of business development for Nualight, an Irish firm that is pushing its way into the U.S. retail marketplace. "We want to create a fabulous space, to get (customers) to feel like they are eating the food, tasting the food -- all with the lighting."

Nualight has its lights in the California-based Fresh and Easy chain, as well as another in New England. Other companies are installing LED lights in stores throughout Texas and the southeast. Kelly said he can nearly replicate the true color of the sun's illumination using digital LED lighting. Kelly says his firm is able to program the LED bulbs to accent individual colors on food -- reds for meat, yellows and greens for veggies or fruits. That's important because LEDs put out less lighting power than fluorescents.

The Star Market in Chestnut Hill, Mass., went all-LED in October 2009 and has seen a big reduction in both energy and maintenance costs since then, says store director Liam Flanagan. There's also the appearance.

"It really makes the food pop compared to a fluorescent light," Flanagan said. "A few customers commented saying the fruit looks more colorful than other stores."

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Several states have adopted a rule promulgated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that limits certain kind of lighting as deceptive, according to an FDA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. The rule states that "food or color additives, colored overwraps, or lights may not be used to misrepresent the true appearance, color, or quality of a food."

Judging whether lighting is misrepresenting or simply enhancing a food is subjective, although some LED makers said they remain concerned about the FDA rule.

"I don't think it's going to stop LED lighting," said Terry Roberts, president of Merchandising by Design, a Dallas-based retail consulting firm. "The big issue is just how its color corrected and that it doesn't cross the line. The good news with LED is you have ability to program it and correct it."

While LEDs last longer, use less energy, have no toxic mercury and produce less heat than other kinds of bulbs, they are more expensive. As with many technologies, advocates say their pricetag will lower over time as they become more widespread. Roberts says won't be long before LEDs make it to the home market.

"They will be more palatable to the consumer because the lighting will be more correct," Roberts said. "It's really a big advance."

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