Online Randomized Controlled Trials of Restaurant Sodium Warning Labels

Aviva A. Musicus, Alyssa J. Moran, Hannah G. Lawman, Christina A. Roberto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Policymakers are interested in requiring chain restaurants to display sodium warning labels on menus to reduce sodium consumption. This study examined the influence of label design on consumers’ hypothetical choices, meal perceptions, and knowledge. Study design: Four sequential, randomized, controlled online experiments were conducted. Setting/participants: Across all 4 experiments, 10,412 sociodemographically diverse participants were recruited online through Survey Sampling International and Amazon Mechanical Turk. Intervention: Participants were randomized to view restaurant menus with either no sodium label (control) or 1 of 13 sodium warning labels that varied the text (e.g., “sodium warning” versus “high sodium”), icons (e.g., stop sign), and colors (red/black) used. Participants placed a hypothetical meal order and rated restaurant meal perceptions. Data were collected and analyzed in 2016–2019. Main outcome measures: The primary outcome was sodium content of hypothetical restaurant choices. Secondary outcomes included restaurant meal perceptions and sodium knowledge. Results: In Experiments 1–3, all warning labels reduced average sodium ordered across both restaurants (by 19–81 mg) versus controls, with some of the largest reductions from traffic light and stop sign labels, but results were not statistically significant. In a larger, preregistered replication (Experiment 4) testing traffic light and red stop sign labels versus control, traffic light and red stop sign labels significantly reduced average sodium ordered across both restaurants (−68 mg, p=0.002 and −46 mg, p=0.049, respectively). Warnings also significantly increased participants’ knowledge of sodium content and perceived health risks associated with high-sodium meals compared with no label. Conclusions: Traffic light and red stop sign warning labels significantly reduced sodium ordered compared with a control. Warning labels also increased knowledge about high sodium content in restaurant meals. Designs with warning text are likely to improve consumer understanding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e181-e193
JournalAmerican journal of preventive medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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