Calories on Menus

Perhaps you read earlier this week that late next year the Food and Drug Administration will require calories on menus in many restaurants, movie theaters, convenience stores and amusement parks. The intent is to lead consumers to choose lower calorie items and be a “major weapon” in reducing obesity.

But will it have those effects? The evidence is far from clear. While some research indicates a slight influence, the bulk of the research does not.

One investigator noted: “upper middle-class people making menu-labeling policy often have little insight into how the lower-middle-class people whom the policy was aimed at would use the information. Just getting consumers to understand what the numbers means his hard…the people who most need the information don’t know how to use it.”

Several years ago New York City required fast-food chains to post the caloric content of their items. Simultaneously a study tracked food choices at four fast-food chains—McDonalds, Wendy’s Burger King and Kentucky Friend Chicken—where customers were informed or the calorie content of food items.

The outcome of the study should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the long line of previous field studies of the effects on information on modifying behavior. Research as far back as the energy crisis of the 70s and 80s demonstrated over and over again that posting requests to save energy or informing people of their actual consumption with and without cost feedback did not turn them into energy conservers. Still we continue to rely on information techniques in trying to regulate or change behavior

Evidence from the recent study in New York found that about half the customers noticed the posted calories associated with particular items of food. About a quarter (28%) of those who noticed claimed the information had influenced what they ordered while almost 90% said it had led them to make less caloric choices

But when the investigators analyzed the receipts (during a four week test period), they found that slightly more calories were ordered than the subjects in the control condition where customer choices were measured during a two week baseline period before the law went into effect—a common control condition in field studies.

The research was carried out in what were said to be “poor neighborhoods” where there are high rates of obesity. “One advocate of calorie posting suggested that low-income people were more interested in price than in calories.”

I laughed when I read this knowing full well that while those more financially endowed are probably less concerned about price, they are just as likely as anyone else to ignore the information and let their taste buds govern their choices.

Since information approaches are not costly and can be easily implemented, the more central issue is how to make them more effective. Simply posting information or passing out a leaflet doesn’t guarantee by any means that it will be translated into action. Several suggestions have been made on how to overcome this limitation.

• Vivid and highly concrete information should be employed: Instead of posting caloric values, show a symbol of a clogged artery.

• Take account of the motivation of the target population: If you are working in an area where price is important, offer an incentive, say a free low calorie item for every nine ordered, as many coffee shops do for coffee purchases.

• Emphasize the trustworthiness of the message: Pair the information with respectable physician, hospital of government agency rather than McDonald’s or Burger King

• Personalize the information as much as possible: Instead of posting the caloric information, arrange to have the manager hand out a colorful card with the same information to each patron with a few words of encouragement.