Traffic-light labels cut calories from online orders

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Consumers benefit from easy-to-understand information about what is—or isn’t—a healthy food choice, according to a new online food-ordering experiment.

The findings show that when food featured traffic light color-coded labels, numeric labels, or a combination of the two, people ordered 10 percent fewer calories online.

“We are looking for more and better ways to help people make decisions about the food that they eat, to help them better understand the nutritional content so that they can use that information when they make choices,” says Julie Downs, associate professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

For the study, published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 249 employees at a large corporation ordered lunches through a website designed by the research team. The menus each had numeric calorie labels, traffic light labels, both kinds of labels, or no nutritional information.

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The researchers compared the calorie content of the ordered lunches and found that each label reduced the calories ordered by 10 percent.

“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,” says Eric M. Van Epps, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Epps worked on the research while pursuing his PhD in behavioral decision research at Carnegie Mellon.

The results also indicate that traffic light labels are effective without standard calorie number information. There was no benefit from combining the two types of labels.

“The jury is still out on whether calorie labeling is an effective policy for reducing calorie intake,” says George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

“We still don’t know whether it will be more or less effective when the information has become ubiquitous and expected. And, we also don’t know whether people who cut back on calories in a meal will compensate in ways that offset the benefit, for example by being more likely to snack or less likely to exercise, later in the day.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University