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With the obesity epidemic at the forefront of America’s health issues, policymakers are looking for simple, effective ways to help consumers make better nutritional choices. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently requires many chain restaurants to identify menu items with a numeric calorie label. While this approach provides consumers with key nutritional information to help them make more educated decisions, the evidence is mixed as to whether these efforts effectively produce their intended behavioral changes.
Another common type of label—the green, yellow, or red traffic light—may provide consumers with an even simpler visual queue regarding the health of their food. In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, authors Eric VanEpps, Julie Downs, and George Loewenstein test the efficacy of numeric versus traffic light labelling on consumers’ choice of healthier options.
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The study provided participants with online menus that were either labeled by numbers, labeled by traffic lights, labeled with both traffic lights and numbers, or without any labeling. The results showed that whether the participant ordered from a menu labeled by graphic or number, there was a 10% reduction of calories in the selected menu items when compared to participants ordering from an unlabeled menu. This was also the case when numbers and graphics were used together as a combined label. Ultimately, numbers and graphics are both effective in helping consumers make healthier choices when eating out.
The results show that “traffic light labels appear to be just as effective on their own as they are in combination with exact calorie numbers” and that both types of labels reduced total calorie selection by approximately 10% compared with the unlabeled menu. In addition, type of labeling did not affect consumers’ estimates of total calorie count, suggesting that “labels may merely facilitate comparisons between menu items … without leading to retention, or possibly registry in the first place, of verbatim knowledge about the items’ calorie content.”
The appeal of the graphic label is that it seems to be equally effective as numeric queues and may be able to reach a broader audience, who may not have either the time, the willingness, or the ability to process numerical information. “In contrast to numeric labels, traffic light labels might help to communicate basic ‘eat this, not that’ information regardless of consumers’ understanding of the underlying nutrients or ability to use numeric information.”
The goal of mandated labeling is to give consumers the means to make better-informed choices. While numbers undoubtedly communicate more specific information, the ultimate hope is to effect positive behavioral change. To this end, a simple graphic may be just what the doctored ordered.
Eric M. VanEpps, Julie S. Downs, and George Loewenstein “Calorie Label Formats: Using Numbers or Traffic Lights to Reduce Lunch Calories.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, In-Press.