Traffic-light labels may encourage you to order healthier takeout


Healthy choices

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Can menu labels really encourage people who order takeout to make healthier food choices? According to a new study, they're a step in the right direction.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania found that traffic-light (color-coded) labels, numeric labels and a combination of these two reduced the number of calories in online food orders by about 10%.

Published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the study's results suggest that consumers benefit from easier-to-understand information about what is — and what isn't — a healthy food choice.

"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," said Julie Downs, associate professor of social and decision sciences at CMU.

For the study, 249 employees at a large corporation ordered lunches through a website designed by the research team. The menus had the following:

  • numeric calorie labels,
  • traffic-light labels,
  • both kinds of labels or
  • no nutritional information.

The researchers compared the calorie content of the lunches the employees ordered and found that each label reduced the caloric content by 10%.

"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 Eric M. Van Epps, who worked on the research project while pursuing his PhD in behavioral decision research at CMU.

The results also indicate that traffic-light labels were effective without standard calorie number information, and 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," said George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "We still don't know whether the information 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."