'Traffic' symbols help with calorie labels on menus

'Traffic' symbols help with calorie labels on menus

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.


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virtualAnonymity wrote on March 20, 2013 at 6:03 pm

When ordering at a nicer restaurant I am not looking for lower calories. I am looking for what tastes good or to fill a craving. Definitely not looking for behavior modification with a color coded dot. If the portion is too much, I take it home for the next day. After all, I am buying. Does the receipt print a gold star if I don't buy any red dotted items. Does HHS get a copy? A red dot might make me think I getting a better tasting dish. Or at least more calories for my money. Calories, its whats for dinner. After my tantrum, I know, I don't get any dessert.

Lostinspace wrote on March 20, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Yup.  This would make bland restaurants even more bland.  Not good for foodies.

SaintClarence27 wrote on April 03, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Serioulsy, if you can't just do the math and figure out what is good or bad based on description or calorie count, a colored dot isn't going to help you. Am I the only one that looks at those "Unhealthiest meals at Restaurants" lists and drools?

Danno wrote on March 21, 2013 at 6:03 am

C'mon, someone is joking. This information is somewhat easily compiled (as I've done per medical need) via USDA et. al. web sites.

C'mon, Ms. Ellison is a professor!? Appears (perhaps to her family genes) she's not of driving age. So, I looked up her salary in a database of U of I faculty/staff. She is not listed.

Perhaps a new hire, perhaps the article is incorrect. It does appear, to be a project at a Middle School Science Fair.

Please help me understand.