Scientists have reinforced the belief that calorie labeling on online menus can help individuals switch to healthier eating options. Researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pennsylvania recently reported a 10% reduction in the total calories ordered from online menus when calorie labeling methods such as numeric or traffic-light calorie labeling were practiced.

According to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules, calorie information must be mentioned on menus and menu boards in food-chain restaurants along with vending machines. The initiative was taken in compliance with FDA regulations on calorie labeling and is expected to be fully enforced by 2017.

The research work is believed to be one-of-a-kind in evaluating the effectiveness of the color coding labeling method known as traffic light labeling which is used for assessing the extent of choosing low-calorie eating options from online menus.

The research team used three types of colors for coding the calories in online food menus similar to colors of traffic signals. Red was used for extremely high caloric count, yellow for moderate and green for low-calorie foods. Moreover, to evaluate the response to this approach, employees from a reputed firm were given different types of online lunch menus over a period of six weeks containing traffic light coded menus, numeric calorie labeling, menus with both types of labels, or no labels at all. The study was published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

Findings of the research work supported the three types of menus in which some kind of calorie labeling was done. It was analyzed that participants showed a 10% reduction in the amounts of calories ordered from the numbers alone, traffic lights alone, or both labels together, as compared to menus that were not labeled.

Eric VanEpps, lead author of the study shared his viewpoint, saying, “Calorie labels can be really helpful,” he added “We have what we think of as healthy categories like salad. But not every salad is healthier than every sandwich.”

The concept behind the initiative was to educate people about high-calorie foods that are being consumed on a daily basis due to a lack of knowledge about exact calorie contents.

The FDA’s stance on making calorie labeling mandatory for food chains can help change the dietary behaviors of both consumers and food-chain owners. Mentioning the exact number of the calories for every food product ordered automatically increases the chances of consumers opting for low-calorie options. Since some of the restaurants offer meals containing as much as 2000 calories which is the calorie requirement of a healthy adult for a day, menu labeling under such circumstances can help pave the way for swapping high-calorie  foods in restaurants for low-calorie ones.

Furthermore, according to the researchers, the effects of the traffic light and numeric labeling direct towards decision-making processes of consumers based on the assessment of apparently healthier options rather than relying on the absolute calorie counts of foods.

Critics from the Centre of Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Leonard Davis Institute, whilst analyzing the efficacy of study, declared it to have weak and inconsistent results.

Researchers believe that further studies designed on the same lines can help validate the strength of the study but also emphasized the significance of using the calorie labeling methods for improving the choices of the consumers whilst ordering meals online. The study was funded by National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Aging.

Another study designed on the similar lines, published in Economic Inquiry was aimed at checking the potential of using calorie labeling methods and determining the chances of changed behavior of customers in relevance to ordering food in a restaurant setting. Brenna Ellison, a food economist at the University of Illinois, found that traffic light labels can help encourage healthy choices, but no significant effect in the ordering habits of the customers was observed. This approach also compared the effectiveness of calorie labels to “fat tax” in reducing the amount of calories ordered.

FDA originally announced calorie labeling on food chains and vending machines in 2014 which was in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. However, the implementation of the law was delayed to 2017 due to resistance from major food industry groups. Furthermore, calorie labeling is still being adopted by many food chains on their online menus including McDonalds, Panera and Starbucks.