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Traffic-Light and Calorie-Count Labels Reduce Caloric Intake

June 22, 2016 by NCSF 0 comments

Surprisingly, some consumers still have difficulties properly deciphering the information on food labels when making optimal choices related to their nutritional needs. In some cases, such as in restaurants, limited or no information is provided which makes choosing healthy meal options a true guessing game. A new study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing showed once again that if consumers have clear and accurate data, they tend to make healthier choices when compared to being left in the dark. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania added color-coded “traffic-light” and/or numeric calorie-count labels to online food ordering systems and found consumers ordered meals with about 10% less total calories when compared to a menu featuring no labeling. The team assessed 249 corporate employees ordering lunch from a cafeteria via an online portal over a six week period (including 803 total orders). “The similar effects of traffic light and numeric labeling suggests to us that consumers are making decisions based more on which choices seem healthier than on absolute calorie numbers,” said lead author Eric M. VanEpps, PhD.

The study is the first to evaluate the specific effects of traffic-light calorie labeling, where green labels signal low calorie content, yellow labels signal medium calorie content, and red labels signal high calorie content. It seems that a red light staring the consumer in the face prior to clicking to purchase creates second thoughts even if they would have chosen that item without hesitation under normal circumstances. “Calorie labeling appears to be effective in an online environment where consumers have fewer distractions, and the simpler traffic-light labeling seems as effective as standard calorie numbers,” said VanEpps. The general population may hopefully follow a similar ordering pattern in the near future as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that in May 2017 it will begin mandating numeric calorie labeling for restaurants, movie theaters, vending machines, and food delivery services (including those with online ordering). “Future studies looking at different menu types and sets of participants are necessary, but this study on its own provides clear evidence that both calorie labeling methods can be effective when ordering meals online,” VanEpps said. “It’s important that research be conducted in all ordering contexts where calorie labeling mandates might be applied.”

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