Menu Labeling Effectiveness: Do Calorie Counts Encourage Healthier Choices?

Both consumers and restaurants have important roles to play in ensuring that menu labeling is effective at helping Americans make healthier food choices.

Both consumers and restaurants have important roles to play in ensuring that menu labeling is effective at helping Americans make healthier food choices. Image source: Unsplash user Suad Kamardeen.

Time sure flies—especially in an industry as busy as the restaurant business. Just three months ago, the menu labeling law requiring chain restaurants of 20 or more locations to provide calorie and nutrition information on their menus came into effect. As a result, it’s easier for American diners to make informed choices about what they order.

Things seem to be running smoothly at FDA-compliant restaurants around the nation, but since the law came into effect, we really haven’t heard too much about how the public is utilizing the increased information. This would perhaps explain why I’ve been getting a lot of questions about menu labeling effectiveness since May. People are wondering if calorie counts do indeed encourage consumers to make healthier food choices, so let’s take a look at how the menu labeling law is affecting the American public.

Studies Demonstrating Menu Labeling Effectiveness

Since it has only been three months, it’s difficult to say whether the menu labeling law is making a significant difference in the number of calories Americans are consuming. What we can do, though, is look to studies and use them to better understand how the menu labeling law may impact America’s eating habits.

Before the menu labeling law came into effect in May, several studies were done to determine whether providing calorie counts would result in diners making healthier choices. While some studies reported positive results that showed calorie counts do indeed reduce how many calories people consume, others showed that calorie counts did not reduce calories consumed across a population. One meta-analysis, in particular, found that negative findings seemed to be especially relevant in fast food restaurant settings, whereas positive results seem to be more common in cafes and sit-down restaurants that market themselves as being health-conscious.

It is important to take these conflicting findings with a grain of salt, however, because many of those studies were not particularly well designed. First, most studies only accounted for a single dining experience, so we don’t know if and how repeated exposure to calorie counts impacts choices over time. Secondly, being exposed to calorie counts on a restaurant menu, especially if they are high overall, may cause customers to choose a different restaurant the next time they go out, which the studies did not account for either.

Besides studies, we can also look to places like New York City that have had the calorie labeling law in effect for many years. While New York has indeed seen a reduction in calorie consumption, it is difficult to say whether the rest of the country will reflect these specific results. Perhaps the only way we will know how consumer’s choices are being influenced is by giving it more time.

Are Calorie Counts Impacting Restaurant Menus?

Of course, consumers aren’t the only ones that have the power to change the eating habits of Americans—restaurants can have an impact, too. In fact, while analyzing their recipes for calorie and nutrition information in order to prepare for menu labeling compliance, many restaurants made healthy changes to their menus. Some restaurants, for example, wanted to modify their recipes in order to lower the calorie counts. Others wanted to cut calorie counts without changing their recipes, so instead, they focused on reducing portion sizes. Still others worked on improving the health of their recipes but not necessarily cutting calories, as high-calorie foods can still be healthy.

It cannot be denied that restaurants have an important role to play in helping to change the eating habits and the health of Americans. If you are noticing that certain high-calorie items on your menu aren’t being ordered as much or if you are thinking of designing a healthy menu, working with an expert menu consultant is a great idea.

Menu consultants can evaluate your menu, give you advice on how to make it lighter and healthier, and even do the nutrition analysis for each of your items for you. That way, you can do your part to make sure menu labeling is as effective as possible and that Americans are given all the tools they need to make healthy decisions.

MenuCalc is an industry-leading online nutrition analysis software trusted by restaurants, convenience stores, cafes, and grocery stores of all sizes. Learn more about our expert consultants, try our software for free, or contact us to find out how MenuCalc can work for your business.

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