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Symbols, such as traffic lights, on menus effective in educating diners

nomic Research Service.

"Though expenditures outside the home have leveled off in recent years, it's still a substantial proportion of food dollars spent and calories consumed outside of the home," Ellison said. "If the labels work and the effect of the label persists to subsequent restaurant visits, even small reductions in the number of calories consumed could add up in the long run in terms of a few pounds in a year."

But if the labels only result in a one-time calorie reduction, the effect is relatively small. On average, the combination calorie-traffic light label only reduced total calories ordered by about 69 calories, Ellison says.

"An individual could reduce twice as many calories simply by not drinking a soda," she said.

Ellison notes that the research does have an additional takeaway for consumers: Calorie labels were more likely to influence the selection of the main entre as opposed to supplemental items such as drinks and desserts.

"While both calorie labels reduced entre calories ordered, both also actually increased extra calories ordered from additional sides, desserts, drinks, etc., compared to the menu with no nutrition information," she said. "So there does seem to be what we call a 'licensing effect,' which could also potentially be a concern. In other words, people might reward themselves for ordering a low-calorie entre by adding on a dessert, ultimately negating the entre calorie reduction. Research has shown people don't want to be future-oriented. When you're hungry, you're hungry now. You're not thinking of yourself in 20 years."

Another stumbling block for consumers could be foods that have associated "health halos," Ellison warns.

"Salads are a common example of a food that experiences the 'health halo' effect," she said. "Consumers expect salads to be healthy because they have many vegetables. They think that no matter what else is added to the salad, it should still be heal

Contact: Phil Ciciora
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Symbols, such as traffic lights, on menus effective in educating diners
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