CHAMPAIGN — Mushroom and swiss burger, 820 calories: Stop.
Crab cake sandwich, 350 calories: Go.
Adding traffic symbols like stop, caution and go signs — along with calorie labels — to restaurant menus can reach a broader group of diners than just calorie labels alone, a recent study suggests.
Restaurants that belong to chains of 20 or more will be required to include calorie information to menus as part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
A date for the calorie labeling requirement to begin hasn't been set, but the Food and Drug Administration is in the last stages of writing final rules, and some restaurants have already begun posting calorie information voluntarily.
The new regulation is intended to help Americans make more healthful choices as their consumption of restaurant food has grown over the past three decades.
Adding the calorie information alone can be effective, but it's most likely to influence those restaurant diners with lower levels of health information, concluded the study done by Brenna Ellison, a University of Illinois agricultural and consumer economics professor, and two colleagues at Oklahoma State University.
For the more health-conscious, calorie-information alone adds little new information, researchers found, but adding symbols to the calorie information could further reduce the calories ordered even for the most health-conscious people.
"It's an extra suggestion of what's good or bad," Ellison said.
Ellison said the research was conducted at a full-service restaurant while she was at Oklahoma State, and it involved 138 restaurant customers, each of whom was randomly assigned one of three types of menus.
One menu had no values next to menu items, one had calories only and one had calories plus traffic symbols — a green light for 400 calories or less, yellow light for 401 to 800 calories, and red light for more than 800 calories.
Diners in the study, for example, saw red stop signs next to menu items such as burgers in the 800- to 900-calorie range, and green lights next to menu items such as veggie dishes in the 200-calorie range.
The average number of calories ordered for people with plain menus with no calorie information was 765, while the average number for those with calorie-only information was 819. For those with both calorie and traffic symbol information, the average number was 696, according to the study.
Some other findings:
Ellison said calorie labels had the most influence on the selection of entrees rather than on beverages and desserts.
Diners with the calorie-only and the calorie-plus-traffic symbol menus tended to order menu extras, such as a dessert, beverage or soup, in the 160- to 170-calorie range, possibly to reward themselves for having made lower-calorie entree selections, she said.
Salads could also be deceptive because many people automatically think salads are healthy choices, Ellison said.
When meat is added, salads can rack up as many calories as a sandwich on the menu, she said.
The research was published last month in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.