Matthew Soltau / EyeEm
Mike Pomranz
June 22, 2017

A new study suggests that regulating eating patterns could be as easy as regulating traffic patterns: by using a stoplight-inspired green, yellow and red labeling system.

According to a study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, researchers found they were able to cut participants’ calories by about 10 percent by simply placing small traffic light icons corresponding to the number of calories a food item contained next to the item’s name, with green lights indicating healthier options and red lights indicating the highest calorie foods.

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The study looked at 803 orders from 249 people over a six week period. During that time, corporate employees were asked to order lunch from a new online ordering system. Participants were presented with one of four possibilities: no calorie information, a calorie count, the traffic light symbol or both the number of calories and a traffic light. Regardless of which of the latter three option participants saw, the result was always about a 10 percent cut in calories over not seeing any calorie info at all. “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 lead author Eric M. VanEpps, PhD.

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With FDA-mandated calorie numbers coming to restaurants in May 2017, studies such as this one are becoming increasingly relevant. And VanEpps specifically spoke to the power of seeing this kind of information when ordering online: “Calorie labeling appears to be effective in an online environment where consumers have fewer distractions, and the simpler traffic-light labeling seems as effective as standard calorie numbers,” he said. And just in case things go terribly wrong, maybe install an airbag under your plate?

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