Do People Want Calorie Labels on Menus?

On Tuesday evening, I was on air with Gil Gross who has a talk show on AM radio in San Francisco.  He wanted to talk about some research we recently published on menu-labeling.  I previously blogged about some of the results, but I wanted to re-mention something that came up during our talk.

After discussing our finding that menus having only calorie information had no effect (they actually increased total calories ordered on average, though not significantly) and menus with a "traffic light" symbol had a small to moderate effect, the host asked whether people wanted these labels.  

Well, we actually asked precisely that question on a survey administered at the end of the meal.  Here is the exact phrasing of the question as it appeared on the 1-page survey.


We found 30.5% said they wanted a "menu with no nutritional information", 42% said they wanted a "menu with calorie contents of menu items listed", and only 27.5% said they wanted a "menu with a symbol to represent the calorie content of menu items."  

So, curiously, the most popular option is the one that had zero effect (and if anything increased total calories).  The menu which actually lowered caloric intake was actually least preferred.  

On a last note, people sometimes take these kinds of survey questions to indicate what a business (or government) should do.  That's not the right interpretation.  Just because consumers say they want labels doesn't mean it's good business (or good public policy) to provide them.  Labels cost money (and might change behavior in ways that cost money) that must be weighed against any benefits they provide.  Moreover, if consumers really want these labels, won't they frequent restaurants who voluntarily provide them?  Thus, there seems to be a clear incentive here for restaurants to provide the labels if they are truly demanded - and indeed many restaurants voluntarily do it already.