This novel way of presenting key information could have benefits for consumers to quickly calculate and use numerical and nutritional information provided for menu items.
In the long-term it is widely recognised that managing the intake of certain nutrients can prevent diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Illinois, aimed to improve on previous research that used a "traffic light" labelling system in which menu items are designated as green, yellow, or red based on calories.
However, the system had no effect on consumers' purchases when multiple nutrients were colour coded.
As part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act a menu labelling mandate was added that would require chain restaurants to provide calorie information on restaurant menus at the point-of-purchase.
However, Manabu Nakamura, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, said most people, except those with specific health concerns or food allergies don't ask to see this information or don't know how to use the information provided.
Details of the study
Nakamura’s team devised two experiments using a visual, 2-dimensional plot showing fibre and protein values per calorie for each menu item. The graph also included an information box stating the recommended dietary amounts of those nutrients per calorie of food.
They then asked participants to recall nutrition information when shown the information for foods either using the 2-dimensional graph or numerical information. The team found recall accuracy improved by 43% when they were shown the information graphically versus numerically.
The second experiment was a 12-week study that involved customers standing in line to order and pay for their food at registers near the entrance of a café.
Here, the fibre, protein, saturated fat, and sodium per calorie values of each menu item were plotted either on the 2-dimensional graph or displayed numerically. Information about weight management, limiting saturated fat and sodium, and increasing fibre and protein was placed where customers could see before ordering.
The results found that when nutrition information was displayed graphically, calories purchased from entrees decreased by 10% compared to when no information was displayed, and decreased by 13% compared to when numerical information was provided.
In contrast the graphical representation saw calories from purchased side items decrease from 43% compared to when no label was displayed, and 47% from the numerical stage.
Protein per calorie increased by nearly 24% when the graph was present compared to when no nutrition label was provided, and 20% from the numerical stage.
"This may be the first study that shows unambiguous purchasing changes from displaying the nutrition information," said Nakamura.
He believed that looking at just calories when choosing food was not enough and that other nutrients had to be factored in when selecting a healthy meal.
"In terms of weight maintenance, you can reduce calories but increase the protein per calorie and the same with fibre, a fibre per calorie increase, Nakamura said.
“These two things have to be maintained or it's a bad diet that you can't maintain."
Future study areas
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.
In addition, future studies on this graphical method may look at more diverse populations, menus that offer a greater variety in fibre offerings, and more nutrient combinations.
Another possibility is the creation of mobile apps with the graph that consumers can use to plot nutrients in menu items as they order during time-constrained situations.
"We are hoping this system can be quickly understood and can provide the information needed to make a decision," Nakamura said.
Source: Nutrition Research, Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2016, Pages 44–56
Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2015.10.009
“Improvements in recall and food choices using a graphical method to deliver information of select nutrients.”
Authors: Nathan S. Pratta, Brenna D. Ellisonb, Aaron S. Benjaminc, Manabu T. Nakamura.