Evidence that menu labeling leads to a reduction in calories when dining out is mixed, but the report does suggest that seeing posted calories may lead to consumers eating fewer calories daily, even after they leave the restaurant
Building on its 2008 research report, this report reviews nearly fifty new studies exploring consumer support for menu labeling as well as the effects of labeling on consumer awareness, purchase intentions and actual food purchasing.
Studies that were conducted in controlled settings or that relied on survey data were given less weight in the report as they may not reflect what happens in the real world. The studies that were conducted using real-life restaurant scenarios offered mixed results in terms of the effect of labeling on what we choose to order and how many calories we consume when eating out.
Most of us get a third of our daily calories on meals away from home. All that eating out is linked to excess calories and obesity, which increases cancer risk. Menu labeling provides an opportunity for us to assume a more proactive role in our own health as it relates to diet.
Having access to calorie and nutrition information at the moment we purchase a meal may be the key factor in reducing calorie intake, as the average customer rarely seeks out nutrition information from a restaurant website or pamphlet before dining out. Do you often visit a restaurant’s website to check calorie information on your way out to grab dinner? Me neither.
The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act included legislation requiring chain restaurants and vending machine companies with 20 or more locations to add calorie information for standard items to menus and menu boards. The FDA hopes to finalize the legislation by the end of this year. The public should see calorie information on restaurant menus six months later and in vending machines within a year of the final FDA ruling.
Tthe RWJF report provides evidence that menu labeling would not necessarily impact revenue and could positively affect both the dining environment and the food offerings. Research and debates are ongoing to address industry concerns and other questions. What is the optimal labeling format? Should restaurants be required to include non-calorie information like sodium or saturated fat? Does menu labeling have a place in non-chain restaurants? Should movie theaters or restaurant-style food in supermarkets be exempt?
Overall the RWJF supports menu labeling as a promising tool to increase awareness and to empower people to make better choices when eating out to prevent weight gain and reduce their risk of diet-related chronic disease. Check out the full report.
Arissa Anderson is an MPH/RD Candidate from the University of Minnesota and dietetic intern with the American Institute for Cancer Research. Connect with Arissa on Twitter @ArissaAnderson.