A new study from the University of Illinois found that when consumers are shown a graphical display of select nutrients on a 2-dimensional plot when ordering in a café setting, they purchase healthier, not just lower-calorie, menu items as a meal.
The University of Illinois researchers say understanding how to best present nutrition information is an important, new area of research. A way of communicating which foods to select for certain health problems is needed.
"Current nutrition labels provide comprehensive nutrient information, but unfortunately they're not working for consumers to help them make decisions in restaurants and grocery stores," they said.
In the U.S., chain restaurants and retail food establishments with 20 or more locations are required to provide nutrition information for menu items. But most people – except those who have specific health concerns or food allergies – don't ask to see this information or don't know how to use the information provided.
Previous research has been done showing that a "traffic light" labeling system in which menu items are designated as green, yellow, or red based on calories had some effect on diners' choice of foods.
Fibre and protein tied to weight control
In order to see if presenting the nutrition information graphically would change diners' purchasing behavior, the research team set up two experiments using a visual, 2-dimensional plot showing the values of fibre and protein per calorie for each menu item. The graph also includes a target box that represents the recommended dietary amounts of those nutrients per calorie of food.
The researchers chose to plot fibre and protein per calorie because these two nutrients are closely tied to weight management. Fibre has been linked to greater satiety and lean protein has been linked to improving body fat loss.
The team began with an experiment to see how well participants could recall nutrition information when shown the information for foods either using the 2-dimensional graph or numerical information. Recall accuracy improved by up to 43 percent when they were shown the information graphically versus numerically.
The second experiment was a 12-week study of purchasing behavior the university’s café where customers stand in line to order and pay for their food at cash registers near the entrance.
During some weeks of the study, menu items were plotted either on the 2-dimensional graph according to their fibre, protein, saturated fat, and sodium per calorie values with the information signposted where customers could see before ordering, Other weeks, the nutrition information was displayed numerically.
Facts about managing a healthy weight, such as keeping calories in a healthy range, limiting saturated fat and sodium, and increasing fibre and protein was also signposted near where food was ordered.
When nutrients presented as a graph, diners purchased fewer calories, more protein
How did having a visual target to shoot for when ordering a meal work for consumers?
Ultimately, when nutrition information was provided on the 2-dimensional graph, consumers purchased fewer calories, but purchased more protein per calorie and more items that were rated high as healthy on the plot.
During the weeks in which nutrition information was displayed graphically, calories purchased from entrees decreased by 10 percent compared to when no information was displayed, and decreased by 13 percent compared to when numerical information was provided. During the graphical stage, calories from side items purchased decreased from 43 percent compared to when no label was displayed, and 47 percent from the numerical stage.
Protein per calorie increased by nearly 24 percent when the graph was present compared to when no nutrition label was provided, and 20 percent from the numerical stage.
"If you are looking at just calories when choosing food, that's not enough. If you stop eating something, you can certainly reduce calorie intake. But the important thing is that when you make your meal healthy, it's not just about calories, you have to think about other nutrients, too," the researchers said.
In the future, the researchers hope the graph can be used to present nutrition information in restaurants, grocery stores and dining halls, as well as in households for recipe analysis.
The researchers are also excited about the possibility of creating mobile apps with the graph that consumers can use to plot nutrients in menu items as they order during time-constrained situations.
Source: Nutrition Research, January 2016.
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