When it comes to nutritional labeling on children’s food, how the information is conveyed is as important as what the information is, a new study by Virginia Tech researchers shows.

In one of the first-ever studies conducted in a real-world setting with children’s meals, the researchers found that children and parents who are dining out may make healthier food choices when they are shown the “nutrition bargain price” of food. The nutrition bargain price menu shows the nutritional value of food in real dollars.

The Virginia Tech study also illustrates that people’s eating decisions are more influenced by a message that expresses the information in a well-understood unit (dollars) with an immediate observable impact (cost) rather than in unclear units (calories) with uncertain, future impacts. The change in ordering patterns could play a role in helping establish a food-labeling system that could help counteract the obesity epidemic plaguing the United States.

“This study counteracts the popular press’ notion that menu labeling is not effective,” said Associate Professor Elena Serrano in the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise. “This shows that it can help make a positive change if the information is expressed in more effective behavioral units.”

“The message matters,” said George Davis, a professor in the college’s Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics. “In order to most effectively combat the obesity epidemic, we need to find the most effective ways to inform people to make the right eating decisions. “

Marketing Assistant Professor Jane Machin in Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business also contributed to the study. Their work was recently published in the national nutrition journal, Appetite.

The researchers found that by labeling the nutritional price of meals, some parents and children chose healthier options that were a better nutritional bargain.

Though a menu that listed the caloric make-up of combination meals had little impact on what was ordered, another that showed the nutrition bargain price did result in different ordering patterns.

When customers were presented with the nutrition bargain menu, they were more likely to order a side item from the a la carte menu that was healthier. For example, a family might have chosen fruit salad in place of French fries.

Davis said menus that show the caloric makeup of a meal may not have impacted people’s decisions because eating a high-calorie meal wouldn’t immediately affect them. But showing customers what they would pay for a meal if it they were paying for the nutritional value had an immediate impact on their decisions.

“There are many factors that play into the decision-making process, but this study illustrates that menu labeling content can have a subtle, but significant, impact on the choices people make when eating out, especially if we consider positive choices over time” Serrano said.



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