Our Research on Menu Labeling

For the past couple years, I've been working with one of my former graduate students, Brenna Ellison at the University of Illinois, on some papers related to effects of calorie labels on menus (for those who may not be aware, "Obamacare" mandated that chain restaurants include such menu labels but the FDA has yet to release the final rules and implementation date).  

The first part of that research was finally published last week in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, where we report on a smaller sample from the larger study which includes the group of people Brenna interviewed after they ordered.  The results have been picked up by a couple news outlets, including this one from Reuters: 

Showing diners how many calories are in restaurant food items may influence how much they eat - especially among the least health-conscious people, a new study suggests.

That's true - but only partially true.  We find that the numeric labels mandated by "Obamacare" do not have a statistically significant effect on the number of calories people order.  The labels that we find to be (somewhat) effective are stop-light labels, in which we put a red dot next to the high calorie foods, a yellow dot next to the medium calorie foods, and a green dot next to the low-calorie foods.  As the story suggests, the labels are less influential among people who we rate (based on their survey answers) as health conscious.  The result isn't terribly surprising - people who are health conscious are probably already familiar with the caloric content of the foods they eat, and as such, adding labels are unlikely to provide new information.  Still, we'd want to know something about the cost of the label to know whether the policy was a net-plus (this is an issue we take up in our other papers still in the works).    

The result I found most interesting from the whole study was only discussed in the conclusions (and was missed all together in the news story) is the following:

Interestingly, despite the calorie+traffic light label’s effectiveness at reducing calories ordered, it was not the labeling format of choice. When asked which of the three labeling formats was preferred, only 27.5% of respondents said they wanted to see the calorie+traffic light label on their menus. Surprisingly, 42% preferred the calorie-only label which had virtually no influence on ordering behavior. These responses imply diners may want more information on their menus (the number of calories), yet diners do not want to be told what they should or should not consume (i.e., green = good, red = bad).