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Graphical display of nutrition information helps keep health-conscious eaters on target

Diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease can often be prevented or treated by managing the intake of certain nutrients. However, in a time-constrained situation, such as standing in line at a cafeteria or restaurant, it can be difficult for consumers to quickly calculate and use numerical nutrition information–beyond the amount of calories–provided for menu items.

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.

Manabu T. Nakamura, an associate professor of nutrition at U of I, said understanding how to best present nutrition information is an important, new area of research for him and his lab. “We have researched how fats or carbs metabolize and are regulated, for example. Based on this kind of research, the message of what nutrients we should eat is pretty set. The important thing is learning how you select the right foods. We need to provide a way to communicate what foods to select for certain health problems.

“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,” he said.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, chain restaurants and retail food establishments with 20 or more locations are required to provide nutrition information for menu items. But Nakamura said 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. But Nakamura explained that even that system had no effect on consumers’ purchases when multiple nutrients are color coded.

In order to see if presenting the nutrition information graphically would change diners’ purchasing behavior, Nakamura, along with doctoral student, Nathan Pratt, and a team of other researchers set up two experiments using a visual, 2-dimensional plot showing the values of fiber 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.