High Medium Or Low- Will A Traffic Light Labeling System Work?

June 20, 2016

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We are a little obsessed with food and nutrition labels because they are so critical to helping you navigate a world of seemingly endless food choices.

As we recently let you know, the FDA is starting to make some positive moves to improve food label consumer literacy, slated to go into effect in 2017. This includes a new label for packaged foods, as well as numeric calorie information for food at restaurants, movie theaters, vending machines, and food delivery services (including those with online ordering services).

New research out of the University of Pennsylvania may give policymakers some good ideas about how to effectively reduce calorie consumption using food labeling, especially as we remain in the midst of a national obesity health crisis.

In the six-week long study, as published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, researchers focused on how traffic light calorie labeling can impact calorie consumption when ordering food online. The traffic light approach attaches green, yellow, or red icons to a food item, indicating calorie level (where green is low and red is high).

There were 249 study participants who placed 803 orders online through a special portal that displayed one of four different conditions: 1) traffic light labeling alone, 2) numeric labeling alone, 3) both traffic light and numeric labeling together, and 4) no labeling at all.

The researchers found that participants in any of the groups that contained any form of nutrition labeling showed an average 10 percent lower calorie consumption compared to the group that was not exposed to any labeling. What was especially interesting is that participants who scored low on math skills had a strong response to the traffic light labeling. And those diagnosed as having obesity showed particularly marked lower calorie consumption behavior as well.

It is very encouraging to see that consumers are making an active effort to decrease calorie consumption in efforts to lose weight and improve their health. It’s pretty clear from the research that food labeling plays a critical role in this. We hope to see many more of these kinds of studies in the future, and can’t wait to see what transpires next year when the new labels go into effect. In the meantime, we’ll bring you updates on progress, and do your best to stay alert about the number and type of calories you’re eating!

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