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Traffic Light-coded Food Labels Encourage People to Control Total Calorie Intake

Traffic Light-coded Food Labels Encourage People to Control Total Calorie Intake

by Vishnuprasad on October 17, 2015 at 2:24 PM
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A new study by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, USA, indicates that using traffic light-coded food labels, which reveal how much fat, salt, and sugar an item contains, may be as effective as displaying the information in the form of numbers. The study shows that both methods are equally effective in helping people eat right and consume fewer calories.

Obesity has become the biggest threat to public health in many developed countries. Many of them including the United Kingdom have recently adopted the traffic light-coded food labels to make people understand the level of nutrients in the food they are eating. This initiative has also helped them reduce the economic burden due to obesity.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 13% of the world's adult population were obese in 2014. The basic cause of obesity is a disparity between calories consumed and calories burned. Globally, there has been an increased consumption of energy-packed foods that are high in fat and an increase in physical inactivity.

The research, which appeared in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, confirms that apart from providing calorie information in the form of numbers, another effective and adoptable way to do it is using a graphical representation of a green, yellow or red traffic light.

The study provides the most promising evidence to date that making available calorie information, either in the form of numbers or graphics, people will be able to use the colors to get a better idea of the level of nutrients in the food they are eating and take in fewer calories.

To analyze the effectiveness of numbers and traffic lights, the research team conducted a field experiment with employees of Humana, a U.S. based health-care company.

The participants were divided into two groups. They were asked to place lunch orders through an online platform designed especially for the study. In the experimental group, individuals were given either the number of calories, a traffic light-coded labels, or both, while a control group was given no calorie information. The results showed that both methods resulted in food choices that contained 10% fewer calories.

"We find that either numbers or traffic lights have the same beneficial effect when it comes to taking in fewer calories," write the authors of the study, Eric M. VanEpps, Julie S. Downs and George Loewenstein, all from Carnegie Mellon University. "In our particular study, either method resulted in food choices that contained 10% fewer calories."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration asks most chain restaurants to provide diners with the number of calories that each menu item carries. According to the regulating authority, providing calorie information to people will help them make better decisions when it comes to eating choices. Also, nutrition labels on packaged food may become mandatory in Europe from December 2016 onwards.

However, the researchers note that though providing calorie information in the form of numbers may seem like the best option, governments should consider that not all consumers are good at interpreting numbers.

"For those consumers, traffic light labels can communicate basic 'eat this, not that' information regardless of their understanding of the underlying nutrients or ability to use numeric information," the authors added.

In April 2013, a research from Texas Christian University showed that providing information on calorie content alone does not help people maintain a healthy weight. The researchers opine that a new idea for encouraging reduced calorie consumption in restaurants is by displaying on the menu the minutes of exercise required to burn food calories.

The study involved 300 men and women. They recommended that the menu showing the minutes of exercise needed to burn food calories led to fewer calories ordered and eaten compared to the menu without calorie labels.
References : 1. Eric M. VanEpps, Julie S. Downs, George Loewenstein. Calorie Label Formats: Using Numbers or Traffic Lights to Reduce Lunch Calories. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 2015; 150702153813007
DOI: 10.1509/jppm.14.112

2. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

Source: Medindia

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