Peter Cosgrove  /  AP file
A student displays her school lunch at Mill Creek Elementary School in Kissimmee, Fla., Feb. 21.
updated 7/26/2005 7:20:45 PM ET 2005-07-26T23:20:45

Pizza, hold the pepperoni. A burger, hold the cheese.

When high school students were faced with such tough lunch-line dilemmas, they were more likely to choose the “healthier” option, relatively speaking, when the fat and calories were posted, a small study found.

Even though the menu options tested weren’t the best, researchers say this small experiment shows the benefit of listing nutritional information at schools.

“We didn’t make any statements about the food whatsoever. We just put some information out there to see what they would do with it,” said one of the study authors, Martha Conklin of Penn State University.

The researchers reviewed menu choices at six Pennsylvania high schools. Some of those posted nutritional information for a couple of popular items, while other schools didn’t. Typically, those items were pizzas and burgers — not salads and vegetables.

Even so, the results were encouraging, said Marilyn Tanner, a registered dietitian at Washington University in St. Louis, who wasn’t involved in the study.

At one school, an average of 380 pepperoni pizzas were ordered each day during a six-week period when no nutritional boxes were displayed. In the ensuing six weeks, when nutritional information was posted, an average of 346 pepperoni pizzas were ordered.

During the same time, the number of cheese pizzas — which have less fat and fewer calories — increased from 37 to 60.

In another district, one school tested the nutritional boxes and another school did not. Students at the first school ordered an average of 61 cheeseburgers a day during the non-test period; that declined to 43 a day while nutrition information was posted. The number of hamburgers ordered went up from 19 to 31 per day. The second school saw no change in menu orders at all.

'It's a start'
“It’s a start. It’s that little bit, but that’s what we are looking for,” Tanner said. “Make that healthier choice most of the time and you will be ahead of the game.”

Researchers couldn’t determine how much peer pressure or boredom with the menu may have swayed students’ choices.

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The study, reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, was conducted in fall 2003 at high schools in the Allentown, State College, Hershey and Hollidaysburg districts. It included students in urban, suburban and rural areas and in varying socio-economic groups, and the results were consistent across those categories, the researchers said.

Schools aren’t required to post nutritional information in a cafeteria, though many schools may mail the information home to parents or post it on a Web site.

Greg Hummel, food service director for the Derry Township School District, which oversees the Hershey high school, said he plans to offer nutritional information for eight to 12 entrees starting this fall.

“It’s what we all should do. A high-fat item isn’t bad if you eat it only once or twice a week,” he said.

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