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Symbols and Calorie Labels Influence Restaurant Choices

Brenna Ellison (Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois)

Brenna Ellison (Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois)

Economists at University of Illinois in Urbana and Oklahoma State University in Stillwater found the combination of calorie counts and stoplight symbols had the most influence on choices made by restaurant diners. The team led by Illinois’s Brenna Ellison (pictured right) published its findings in a recent issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Adding calorie information to restaurant menus became a requirement of the 2010 health reform law. Under section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, restaurants with 20 or more locations are required to list calorie counts on their menus to encourage customers to select healthier items. The researchers tested this requirement on actual restaurant behavior.

Ellison and colleagues sampled diners at a full-service Stillwater restaurant in 2010, with three versions of the menu, where each of the 51 items had either:

- No additional information

- Calorie counts added to the menu descriptions

- Calorie counts and a “stoplight” symbol of red, yellow, or green corresponding to high, medium, or low caloric content of the item added

A total of 138 customers took part in the experiment. The diners completed a brief survey regarding their socio-economic characteristics, attitudes, and meal selections. The survey included three items asking about the customers’ daily caloric intake, fat intake, and use of nutrition labels to compute an overall health-consciousness score.

The results showed calorie counts alone had the most influence on customers who were the least health-conscious. For those who were already paying attention to health issues, calorie counts alone appeared to have little impact.

Adding the stoplight symbol, however, appeared to get the attention of even the more health-conscious diners, with these customers ordering lower calorie meals. The researchers found as well that calorie labels affected the choice of main entree items, but not desserts or drinks.

“If we’ve learned anything about consumers, it’s that people often operate under time constraints and are very convenience-oriented,” Ellison explains. “Not every restaurant diner has time to read, or even wants to read, the number of calories listed for each menu item.”

But over time, she adds, the impact of the labels could have a cumulative effect. “If the labels work and the effect of the label persists to subsequent restaurant visits,” says Ellison, “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.”

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