Research & Insights

Campaign To Lower Calorie Intake Produces Sweet Results

By Zoe Green

Sara N. Bleich, PhD
Colleen L. Barry, PhD
Tiffany L. Gary-Webb, PhDBradley J. Herring, PhD
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health

Finding the most effective strategy for presenting information to encourage consumers to cut their calorie intake continues to grow in importance — both because of the Affordable Care Act’s nutrition labeling requirements and increasing concern about the nationwide obesity epidemic.

A study published in the December 2014 American Journal of Public Health found that presenting calorie information on signs in the form of creative “did you know” questions might offer some promise. When tested in stores in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore, the signs contributed to significant reductions in the number of total beverage calories purchased, the likelihood of buying a sugar-sweetened beverage and the likelihood of buying a sugar-sweetened beverage greater than 16 ounces for 12- to 18-year-old black adolescents.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health made black adolescents the focus of their study because “the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages…is highest among minority adolescents; it is approximately 15 percent of their daily caloric intake.” Researchers also noted that the intake of sugary drinks by black adolescents ages 7 to 18 is “at least twice” the 12 ounce limit recommended by American Health Association.

The study, which collected data for 4,516 purchases (3,098 were beverages), also found that for as long as six weeks after the calorie signs had been removed from the stores, black adolescents maintained their lower rate of purchase and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages than before the study began.

For their study, researchers placed different kinds of signs in six stores in low-income neighborhoods throughout Baltimore. Signs randomly presented information in one of four formats: absolute calorie count, number of teaspoons of sugar, number of minutes of running, or miles of walking necessary to burn off a certain beverage.

These signs asked:

 Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 250 calories?

Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 16 teaspoons of sugar?

Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?

Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 5 miles of walking? 

Each of the four questions were posted on brightly colored 8.5-by-11-inch signs that were placed in prominent locations on each beverage case in each corner store.

The most effective signs equated burning calories with the number of miles required to walk off the effects of drinking a bottle of soda.

As the researchers noted “providing caloric information as miles of walking necessary to burn off a bottle of soda resulted in fewer calories purchased” compared with signs that listed the number of teaspoons of sugar it contained.

Overall, the researchers found that study participants reduced their calorie intake in three different ways: not making a beverage purchase at all, purchasing a drink that had zero calories or one with no added sugar, or purchasing a smaller sugar-sweetened beverage.

As the researchers note, “these results might also be relevant to other local or state initiatives in various settings (convenience stores, vending machines in schools, or workplaces) that require point-of-purchase information.”

Zoe Green is a third year English major at the University of Florida, minoring in Mass Communications and Education.

American Journal of Public Health, December 2014 

Posted: February 9, 2015
Tagged as: