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In February 2013, an Oklahoma State University study was released that provides some insight on how to make menu labels more effective — especially for the least health-conscious diners. In the session on menu labeling last week at the National Restaurant Show this very topic/study and example was discussed.
The study's authors partnered with a full-service restaurant close to campus and tested how diners' food choices differed depending on which menu they ordered from: a menu with no calorie labels, a menu with numeric labels, and a menu that used traffic light symbols to denote the level of calories in a meal.
The three traffic light symbols — green, yellow and red — were used to show calorie levels from low to high in the dishes. Green meant that the dish had less than 400 calories; yellow signified that the dish had between 401 and 800 calories; and red denoted that the dish had more than 801 calories.
At the end of the study, the diners who ordered off of the non-labeled menu ate an average of 817 calories per meal. Diners who ordered from the numerically labeled menu ate about 765 calories, and diners who ordered from the traffic light menu ate an average of 696 calories.
The researchers also conducted customer surveys to get an understanding of each diner's reasons for choosing their meal, and whether or not they pay attention to calories in their daily lives. They concluded that the diners who benefited the most from the traffic light labels were those who were normally not very health-conscious, and who did not usually pay attention to calorie label numbers because they weren't sure how those numbers impact them.
This finding could have a huge impact on the menu labeling world. The diners who normally ignore numeric calorie information because they aren't sure how it affects them, or because they aren't aware of basic nutrition teachings, are the patrons who can benefit the most from menu labeling. The food industry has a commitment to helping diners make educated choices — no matter what their level of nutritional knowledge is.
Symbolic labels that can be widely understood and quickly interpreted, like the traffic light labels, could pave the way for making nutritional information on menu labels easy to understand, which truly benefits everyone in my opinion; but we are all about labels these days.