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Warning Labels on Restaurant Menus Made People Order Fewer High-Sugar Foods

By Jiri Kaloc

An online experiment directed by researchers at the University of California, Davis, demonstrated that warning labels with information about added sugar can reduce people’s tendency to order high-sugar foods. Menu labels are effective in raising awareness about added sugar in products ranging from small-sized sodas to surprising sources like salad dressings and sauces.

The experiment appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and involved participants selecting dinner items from online menus that offered typical food and beverage options.

Over 15,000 participants were enlisted for the experiment, to reflect the USA population’s demographics. Half of these participants were given menus with added-sugar warning labels, while the other half had menus without these labels. The warning labels were applied to items containing over 50% of the daily recommended limit for added sugar. All participants’ behavior was monitored while they simulated dinner orders from the menus.

Key findings from the study

  • Warning labels reduced the chance of ordering high-added-sugar products by 2.2%
  • Warning labels were noticed by only 21% of the consumers
  • Those who noticed the label ordered 4.9 g less added sugar relative to the control group
  • 72% of consumers in the study said they supported a law requiring chain restaurants to post these warning labels on their menus
Fast food
There’s a connection between our food choices, our brain wiring and our cravings. © Profimedia

Should sugar-warning labels be mandatory?

These are very important findings because about 21% of calories in the United States come from restaurant meals. The study highlights the need for more visible menu labels, considering that most participants did not notice the added-sugar warnings.

“Given the frequency of restaurant food consumption, these modest effects could lead to meaningful changes in sugar intake at the population level, and the labels should motivate restaurants to reduce the added-sugar content of their menus,” said Jennifer Falbe, lead author of the study and a researcher in the Department of Human Ecology.

Currently, while the Food and Drug Administration obligates large chain restaurants to provide certain nutritional information, there is no specific requirement to disclose added sugar content for restaurant food, as the researchers point out.

“This gap in information leaves consumers in the dark about how much added sugar is contained in the foods and drinks that they consume. We know that chain restaurants serve up foods and beverages packed with added sugars and are especially hard places for consumers to navigate and make healthy choices for themselves and their families, especially those managing chronic diseases. Warning icons provide easily interpretable information to consumers and equip them with the information they need to make informed decisions. They also have the potential to encourage restaurants to rethink their recipes, spurring reformulation to cut back on added sugars,” said DeAnna Nara, a senior policy associate at Center for Science in the Public Interest and co-author.