New research published in theJournal of Public Policy and Marketingsuggests consumers may switch to a lower-calorie option when color-coded or numeric calories are labeled on food menus.

During a six-week study, researchers examined 249 corporate employees ordering lunch through a newly-developed online portal. The portal, displayed menu items with both numeric and traffic light calorie labels together, separately or none at all.

The study is the first to evaluate a “traffic-light” calorie labeling, in which the color green represents low-calorie items, yellow is for mid-calorie and red for high-calorie items.

At the end, researchers found whether items were presented with a traffic light alone, numeric calorie labels alone or both together, participants ordered 10% fewer calories than those who ordered from the portal menu display without calorie labels.

"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, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers also noted participants who scored poorly on a simple math test had a stronger impact with traffic light labeling than numeric calorie labeling.

Overall, obese participants had a stronger impact with calorie labeling than non-obese participants.

The study comes on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issuing a final guidance on its menu labeling rule for restaurants, similar retail food establishments and vending machines.

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 6/22/2016