Calorie Counts Influence Menu Readers

Discussion
Feb 17, 2010
George Anderson

By George Anderson

While at least one study of low-income consumers showed calorie counts on
menus did little to influence purchases in restaurants, two other studies published
on the website of the American Journal of Public Health suggest
putting calories on the menu could play a significant role in helping address
obesity in the U.S.

The most current research tracked patrons at fast-food establishments over
a two-week period on the campus of Ohio State University. A total of 12 entrees
on the menu were listed with calorie counts. The six items with the highest
calories saw sales decrease. While a shift took place in menu items purchased,
it did not affect total consumption. Once the test was over, sales of the 12
items reverted back to previous levels sans calories on the menu.

A second study of consumers in Los Angeles County found a correlation between
calorie listings and purchases similar to that in the Ohio State research.

According to the study’s abstract, “Assuming that 10 percent of the restaurant
patrons would order reduced-calorie meals in response to calorie postings,
resulting in an average reduction of 100 calories per meal, we estimated that
menu labeling would avert 40.6 percent of the 6.75 million pound average annual
weight gain in the county population aged five years and older.”

A report by Nation’s Restaurant News pointed out that not all
studies have shown consumers making better nutritional choices with caloric
information on menus. Research conducted on low-income consumers in New York
found only 54 percent even noticed the information on menus and only 28 percent
said it made a difference in what they ordered.

Discussion Questions: Will calories and other nutritional
information listed on menus help to reduce obesity in the U.S.? Should
retailers promoting healthier eating, such as supermarkets, take the initiative
to include this information on menus even if not mandated by local or state
governments?

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17 Comments on "Calorie Counts Influence Menu Readers"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

There is no harm done in improving “truth in labeling” in restaurants and fast-food stores, but the long-term benefits may take years to determine. As the article points out, calorie labeling may drive sales from one menu item to another but may not reduce the overall consumption of fat, calories and sodium. This relates to the recent discussion about the “Taco Bell diet”–several menu items are being marketed as lower in fat and calories, but are consumers simply buying more of each item?

There is a bigger issue on the horizon: The “truth in labeling” on food packaging. Most serving sizes are unrealistically low compared to what people actually eat, providing a misleading perspective on consumption. While nobody is eager for the heavy hand of the government, some more accurate information on food labels would at least allow consumers to make their own decisions with better information.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

Use some caution here. The research designs used in the studies supporting calorie counts on fast food menus are very weak, with very weak statistics applied to them. These are hardly conclusive.

The bigger question is whether restaurants have a social responsibility to promote “healthy” eating. I’m thinking their job is to cook and serve food. It’s the consumers’ job to know that a Big Mac a day might kill you, not the restaurant’s job to tell you that.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 2 months ago

The guides are all fine and dandy, but how can we force (or slowly condition) consumers to make better choices for themselves? Knowing how many calories, salt and fat in a Double Big Mac is really great but it is still available for purchase. Are we putting the onus back onto the consumer? You are now informed so anything you do is your fault? That didn’t work for cigarettes and it shouldn’t work for restaurants that sell stuff that is bad for you.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

This is an example of the media giving the impression that everyone is watching their weight, while those who do monitor caloric intake are a small minority of the population. Yes, everyone knows they should eat right, however, few actually do. It is good to provide this information at eating establishments for those who want to see it, however, I doubt this will change overall behavior.

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
11 years 2 months ago

While a noble effort, adding calorie counts to menus in an effort to reduce obesity is like ordering a diet Coke with your Big Mac. It looks good but will accomplish nothing. Getting Americans to drop some pounds must be a group effort. Everyone from schools, workplaces, grocery stores, food manufacturers and restaurants must all look for other ways to get people to consume less food and become more active.

Sorry, I have to stop writing as I just spilled Doritos all over my keyboard. I would get up to clean it, but I think I’m stuck in my chair.

Sandy Miller
Guest
Sandy Miller
11 years 2 months ago

This is an excellent idea which could be “messed up” if the government gets involved.

Ben Ball
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

I have to go with the “what’s the harm” crowd on this one. We already require nutrition labeling on packaged goods. Why not restaurant meals?

I’m guilty as charged when it comes to the Diet Coke with the Big Mac. But that’s because I am conditioned to the taste of diet colas–not calorie counting per se.

Still, subtle reminders of the better choices available to us surely can’t hurt anyone–and it might help some of us remember what our spouses keep telling us.

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
11 years 2 months ago
I have to disagree with Marc. Ordering a Diet Coke with your Big Mac versus a Classic Coke will save you over 300 calories. This turns your 800 calorie lunch into 500 calories. That is significant! More people would make that decision if they were better educated. Every one of these studies showed there was a difference in the way people ordered when the nutritional values were obviously posted. Even in the low income areas, 54% of people noticed and 28% adjusted their order. This is significant. I think it’s great that they did this study on The Ohio State campus. This is a venue where young adults frequently go to fast food restaurants together. Talk about peer influence. No girl is going to order a 770 calorie Angus burger if she’s with a guy or any other girl for that matter. With repetition, calorie counts will become second nature and most people will slowly begin to make the healthier decision. This should not be forced by the government, but if ethical companies find that… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

The Bloomin Onion at Outback Steakhouse is utterly delicious. It also has nearly 1600 calories, according to its Web site. Would you be inclined to order it if you knew that this appetizer packs nearly all of your recommended caloric intake for the day?

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

Cripes, what harm can it do? No doubt in my mind whatever that it will help some people make better decisions. I’ve been surprised sometimes to learn that healthy-sounding options on menus actually have more calories, fat and salt than the obvious bombs. Why should supermarkets have to live by this rule, but not restaurants?

And while I usually agree with Doron, I don’t agree that cautions on cigarettes had no effect. Smoking was huge in this country when I was a kid, and now smokers are significantly in the minority. I can’t ever see why sharing information that might help people make decisions can be seen as wrong. And I have a moral problem with the idea that such information should not be shared because it might hurt business.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
11 years 2 months ago

Calories have been around since, well, forever. It is the portion sizes that are out of whack with the amount of exercise most people are not getting these days to work off the calories. To put yet another onus and cost on restaurants which are already struggling to keep on their employees and make ends meet enough to stay open is placing the emphasis on entirely the wrong place. (Not to mention another avenue of litigation if the calorie counts are off by a milligram.) It’s the eating whole bags of chips and a tub of ice cream in front of the TV, and munching on a bag of Chips-Ahoy while stuck in traffic that is killing Americans–not the occasional meal at McDonald’s, Ruby Tuesdays or a shared onion bloom with associates once a week after work.

David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

Calorie and fat content on menus should be regarded not only as a marketing tool but also as a service to the patronizing public. People deserve to know what they are eating and it’s not always obvious merely by what’s on the plate. For example, a “healthy” veggie burger might in fact have a surprising large number of calories after the trimmings. However, in any case, the restaurant shouldn’t use this as a marketing tool in a less than honest way.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
11 years 2 months ago

I believe doing all we can all the time to promote good health is a good thing.

Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

Things like this take time, but make no mistake; knowledge is power, and the sooner people understand that being fat can kill you, the sooner people will start to take control and decide to live longer. We just have a ways to go on that connection.

From what I’ve read, the campaign against cigarettes took almost 40 years to really take hold, even after the Surgeon General’s warning was placed on the packaging. So, my take would be to ad that and make the connection as soon as possible–Warning: this product can cause obesity. After that, the calorie counting success will move quicker.

Kai Clarke
Guest
11 years 2 months ago

First, it is important to note that these studies are poor examples from which to draw conclusions. A 2-week study of students at a single university in Ohio cannot be extrapolated to labeling standards for all of America. Well-educated, young people do not reflect the mass habits of most Americans.

Obesity continues to be a problem with Americans even though we have had product packaging labels that identify this, and it has been available (and posted) on major fast food restaurants for years. The problem with obesity is not a calorie awareness issue, it is a lifestyle issue. People are obese based upon how much they eat compared to what they burn. Exercise is the missing component here. If people burned more calories through at least 35 minutes of cardio-based exercise, every day, obesity would certainly decline. Obesity is not a disease that is focused on reporting calories, but one that is balanced by caloric intake compared to caloric output (exercise).

Vincent Young
Guest
Vincent Young
11 years 2 months ago

The opportunity here for supermarkets, restaurants, and food brands is one of profit, not social responsibility. Remember, the study focused on the purchase behaviors of “low income” consumers. If we assume that businesses are also able to charge a little more for the “better-for-you” food choices and still shift the mix of lower income consumers towards the lower calorie items, then category revenues and profits will increase (which can be a difficult challenge when targeting lower income consumers).

If the study findings are true, there may be an interesting new brand or brand extension opportunity for a restaurant, supermarket, or product line of slightly-higher priced, “better-for-you” items that specifically target/cater-to lower income consumers and communities.

Benjamin Smith
Guest
Benjamin Smith
11 years 2 months ago
More, comparable information on menus should help consumers make better decisions, regardless of the category. Then, if you still choose to make a bad decision, at least you knew what you were doing. However, “truth in labeling” is not as desirable/optimal for every category. Imagine how much success you’d have in trying to convince retailers who derive a great deal of profit from a category like inkjet cartridges to provide information similar to the calorie count example above. In this case, it would likely trade consumers down to printers that use less expensive ink cartridges. While this would surely benefit the consumers, that would be at the cost of the retailers and manufacturers of expensive ink cartridges. Contrast that with food, as my colleague Vince Young suggests, at least the trade down to a lower calorie option has the potential to actually increase sales/profits as these options are usually able to command a premium. I’m always for more information to make better decisions. The key is to understanding if there is an incentive for the… Read more »
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