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Menu labels in university canteens do not influence meal choices

02 August 2011 Ghent University

Researchers from the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering of Ghent University introduced the star-rating system to signal the nutritional quality of the canteen meals and as such to highlight the healthiest meal options. Beside the number of stars, the system also indicated the nutritional shortcomings (if applicable), such as a too high content of energy, saturated fat, sodium, or an insufficient amount of vegetables. A group of 224 canteen customers, essentially female students between 18 and 25 years, recorded all foods and drinks consumed during 24-h  before and after the introduction of the menu labels. The study concluded that the nutrition information as implemented in this study was not effective in improving meal choices and nutrient intakes.

The researchers predicted a positive effect of the menu labels on students’ food choices, especially among this group of young higher-educated women. However, they were not completely surprised about the ineffectiveness of the labels. “The participants of our study were indeed expected to be more involved with food and health compared with the average consumer. If no positive effect is found in this group , then the menu labels are less likely to influence the general public”, said the researchers. “It is clear that many factors influence the food choices of canteen customers. People’s habits, taste preferences and the choices of others appear to be more influential than nutrition information on menu labels.

Nevertheless, a small group of 60 participants reported more than once to have chosen a healthier meal – as indicated by the star-rating system. “It were mainly students with greater objective nutrition knowledge and a stronger motivation to eat healthy. Although knowledge and motivation are important for making healthier food choices, the meal supply needs in the first place to contain sufficient healthy choices corresponding to the taste and price preferences”, said the researchers.

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