NUMBER MUNCHING: Will a few extra figures on the menus persuade Americans to make healthier restaurant choices? New research suggests more information doesn't translate into fewer calories Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/SLOBO
More In This Article
For consumers in California, New York City, Portland and Seattle, it might not come as a surprise that Starbucks's raspberry scone contains 500 calories or the foot-long meatball marinara sandwich at Subway has about 1,160. But because these few local and state governments have introduced mandatory menu labeling in chain restaurants, have people been cutting back on the calories in their orders?
Consumers across the country will start seeing these numbers on menu boards when labeling requirements roll out nationwide as part of the new health care reform law. Findings on this approach's effectiveness, however, have been decidedly mixed.
One small study conducted at an Asian-style fast food restaurant even tried to actively solicit customers to cut calories by asking if they would "like to downsize that" (rather than the now maligned "supersize that" offer) to cut 200 calories from their meals. About a third of consumers took the offer, but that rate did not improve when calorie counts were posted, reported New York University's Brian Elbel at the American Public Health Association meeting in 2010. This difference suggests that although some consumers might be willing to change their lunch routine with a prompt, calorie figures did not seem to tempt them away from "visceral urges" when they stepped up to place their order, Elbel explained.
A new yearlong study, published online January 14 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that consumers at one fast food chain in the Seattle area were unfazed by calorie counts listed with their favorite menu items.
In January 2009 King Country in Washington State, which includes Seattle and some of its suburbs, started requiring chains to make nutrition information available for all of its offerings, including visible calorie counts (which also needed to be on drive-through boards by August of that year). So researchers compared consumers' food choices at several locations of the Mexican-style restaurant called Taco Time before and after calorie numbers were posted—as well as with Taco Times that were outside of the regulated area.
After a year of looking at the labels Taco Time consumers were still not persuaded to ditch more of their beef Roma burritos (843 calories) in favor of regular chicken salads (196 calories)—overall order calorie totals (including sides and drinks) stayed relatively stable. Was this because health-conscious Seattle-area residents had already been able to make healthful choices via the chain's "healthy highlights" menu? Or is it simply foolish to think that a few posted digits might come between people and their nachos?
Scientific American spoke with one of the study authors, Eric Finkelstein, an associate professor at Duke University's Global Health Institute and in the school's Health Services Research Program in Singapore, about why the extra helping of information did not influence ordering behavior.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Even though customers at the King County restaurants had a full year to digest the calorie content of their orders, they didn't seem to start more healthful choices. Why do you think that is?
The fact that it was zero change was a little surprising. This information just doesn't change their behavior. I think fast-food customers who are busy and interested in having a nice meal are just not that interested in the calorie posting. I think super healthy people just don't go to Taco Time.
I think Taco Time also made it easier for consumers to identify which were the lower-calorie entrees by having the "healthy highlights" menu. If you are health conscious, and you can buy a Coke, a Diet Coke or water, do you really need to know the calorie counts? You already know which has more calories.
Does that imply that people who are making less healthful decisions are less aware of the relationship between poor diet and poor health?
I find it hard to believe that in this environment people don't know that eating fast food is not healthy. Most people seem to know if they're overweight, and that hasn't seemed to change their behaviors. Obese people certainly know that their weight is increasing their risk of poor health—they actually overestimate the mortality risks of obesity. I think information alone is not going to change people's behavior and get them to lose weight.
If you look back at tobacco, the truth is that most of the change in smoking was due to cigarette taxes—the information campaigns had only a marginal effect. I think prices have a more salient effect when it comes to these types of behaviors.
All of this has reminded me a little of the lessons we've learned from behavioral economics—that as consumers we don't always make the best, most rational decision in our day-to-day lives. Do you think similar dynamics are at work here?
It's possible, or it could be that consumers just like the taste of the food that they buy and listing calories just doesn't change their mind.
The simple story is: consumers knew what they like, you gave them information, and they still buy it. It's actually not an irrational decision—it's got all the ingredients that people crave: sugar, salt, fats. Once you buy it and you start eating it, it's quite difficult to stop.