CHAMPAIGN, Ill. A little-noticed provision of the Affordable Care Act requires all chain restaurants and retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calorie counts on their menus. But according to research co-written by a University of Illinois agricultural economist, numeric calorie labels might not be the most effective way to influence patrons to select "healthier" (often interpreted as lower-calorie) items.
Brenna Ellison, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics, says placing a symbolic label in addition to the numeric calorie information on a menu is a better way to reach more diners, from the least to the most health-conscious.
"Our research found that if only numeric calorie labels are implemented, the effect on calories ordered will be smaller in magnitude, but less health-conscious patrons are still likely to respond to the information by ordering lower-calorie items, which is good," she said. "However, if you go one step further and add a symbol in our case, a traffic light symbol to the existing calorie information, that extra step benefits even the most health-conscious individuals."
For the health-conscious, it may provide an extra piece of information that they did not already know.
"The traffic light may function as a normative suggestion as to what is 'better' or 'worse' for diners to eat," Ellison said. "Thus, by reducing the number of calories ordered for diners across all levels of health-consciousness, the combination calorie-traffic light label seems to be more effective than the numeric calorie label alone."
The research, co-written by Jayson L. Lusk and David Davis, both of Oklahoma State University, was conducted in a full-service restaurant where patrons were randomly assigned one of three different types of menus some with no information about calories; some with the number of calories listed; and some with a symbol (in this case, a traffic light symbol with
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign