Can menu labeling really change behavior?

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October 4, 2012 by Elizabeth

In theory, providing calorie information on restaurant menus is a great idea. When I first learned of mandatory menu labeling laws as a dietetics student, I automatically supported them. Of course this will help people make healthier choices! After all, when I started taking an interest in my diet and making healthy choices, food labels were always an important source of information.

But over the years, I have become wiser (and perhaps more cynical). I have thought of questions such as:

Do people want to make healthier choices when they eat out?

Do people understand what healthier means?

Does lower calorie = healthier options? Does lower calorie = tasty?

After all, most people would rather choose a menu item based on taste than health alone.  I know that if I’m having dinner out with friends at a restaurant, I want to spend my money on something that will taste good. Interestingly, I have read studies (Finkelstein & Fishbach, 2010) that show that when an item is described as healthy (instead of tasty), consumers almost always rate the taste as less desirable, and their fullness as less. This shows a social norm exists where we believe that healthy food doesn’t taste good and doesn’t fill you up. In light of this, menu labeling might actually “backfire” with some consumers, leading to fewer sales of the lower-calorie options.

ImageBut let’s ignore that. Let’s say that people do indeed want to eat healthy choices: can they even make sense of the numbers used in nutrition labels? Numeracy and health literacy are major concerns. Simply posting that a cup of soup at your local café has 250 calories is meaningless to most people. Sure, they might be aware that this vegetable noodle soup is lower in calories than the shrimp bisque, but are they aware of their caloric needs per day (or per meal) and how this soup will fit into that plan?

Studies looking at menu labeling have not been able to conclusively show that labeling leads to fewer calories being consumed. This is partly because the research is so complex to perform. Most of these studies look at what people order (receipt studies), not what they consume. It is possible that people might still be ordering the same calories, but are now eating less after the menu labeling went into effect. The only way researchers could tell would be by following people and observing everything they eat. As we all know, that wouldn’t foster “normal” eating behavior. So how do we really know whether labeling can work?

The food industry has argued that menu labeling is a burden on their resources, but I struggle to see if it would really be that difficult. After all, food manufacturers have had to provide nutrition labels for packaged foods in the grocery store for decades. For many chain restaurants, the nutrition information is already available on their website, so this is not reinventing the wheel. Additionally, small businesses will be exempt from the labeling requirements of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Overall, I am all in favor of providing labels as an education tool. Knowledge is power. But without a supportive environment, I’m not sure it alone is conducive to long-term behavior change. I think menu labeling can be most effective when and if it leads to restaurants changing their menu options, providing incentives for healthy options (pricing, marketing), and when the population is more literate regarding the use of nutrition labels.

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Finkelstein SR, Fishbach A. 2010. When healthy food makes your hungry. Journal of Consumer Research 37(3): 357-367

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2 thoughts on “Can menu labeling really change behavior?

  1. Esther says:

    I think you make a very important point about the use of calorie count as an indicator of “healthiness.” After all, calorie counts are only indicators of energy intake, not of nutrient density of the food. Faced with the choice between funnel cake with powdered sugar or whole-wheat pita and hummus for an afternoon snack, I don’t think a sign saying each dish is portioned out at 300 kcal is actually telling the consumer much about the nutritional value of the two options. Of course, quantifying nutrient density is trickier than just counting calories since the goal is a balance of nutrients. Calorie counts might help if consumers already have a feel for the nutrient density of the product (for example, “I’ll only have 100 kcal of fries since they’re less healthy and I’ll get the bulk of my calories from the grilled chicken and a salad.”), but as a tool for making nutrition decisions they definitely can’t stand alone.

  2. blistenfelt says:

    Elizabeth,
    I really like your point that knowledge is power and that labels can serve as an educational tool. Consumers do need more and better educational tools to help them make better decisions both at home and in restaurants. I become frustrated, however, that industry (and often society) thinks the solution is as simple as slapping on a nutrition label and calling it a day. As you point out, nutrition labels require a certain level of literacy and nutrition knowledge that most Americans simply don’t possess. Until we do a better job as a whole in nutrition education, these labels can only have so much impact. On a side note, I think that we need to think about the terminology we use in regards to choosing between foods. Encouraging people to choose the “better” option instead of the “healthier” option seems more applicable when choosing between the triple patty bacon cheeseburger and single patty hamburger with mustard and onions. The definition of “healthy” is often debatable and difficult to define, particularly when talking about a single food item instead of an overall diet.

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