Studies have found that taking the guesswork out of menu choices, by showing the actual number of calories and a traffic light label, can significantly impact how many calories customers consume. 

By Hayley Sugg
June 20, 2016
Photo: Richard Lautens / Getty

Trying to find a low-calorie choice when eating out is no easy task. Sometimes a bit of guesstimating is required, which can leave diners unaware of how many calories they are actually consuming. 

A recent study by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has revealed that simple menu label changes can reduce the calories ordered by about 10 percent.

The team studied corporate employees ordering their lunches through a newly-developed online portal. This online portal displayed menus that had either no caloric information or were labeled with the food's calories and a traffic light label. The traffic light label, showing green, yellow, or red, represents how high calorie the food is. For example, if you had a high-calorie red light meal for breakfast, it might be best to balance it out with a low-calorie green light lunch. 

Photo: University of Pennsylvania

The study found that, when presented with both the calorie numbers and a traffic light label, the participants ordered 10 percent fewer calories than those who did not have labels displayed. 

“The similar effects of traffic light and numeric labeling suggests to us that consumers are making decisions based more on which choices seem healthier than on absolute calorie numbers,” said Eric VanEpps, a postdoctoral researcher for the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, in a press release.

They also found that participants who scored poorly on a simple math test were more strongly impacted by the traffic light label instead of the numeric calorie display. This is not the first time that visual labels have resounded well with those having little nutrition literacy. Studies have also found that children are more likely to choose healthy foods when they're labeled with happy emojis and visual calorie-burning labels are supported by two-thirds of the United Kingdom.

While this study holds great promise, some researchers point to conflicting evidence suggesting that calorie labels might not help reduce consumption. The Perelman School of Medicine research team is aware that more research is needed to show how much of a difference calorie labeling actually makes: “Future studies looking at different menu types and sets of participants are necessary, but this study on its own provides clear evidence that both calorie labeling methods can be effective when ordering meals online,” VanEpps said in the press release. “It’s important that research be conducted in all ordering contexts where calorie labeling mandates might be applied.”  

The FDA is requiring that all restaurant and fast food chains display their menu's calories by the end of 2017.