The Jury Is Still Out on Impact of Menu Labeling

March 9, 2011

By Susan J. Matthees

The USDA’s Economic Research Service (“ERS”) recently published an article titled “Will Calorie Labeling in Restaurants Make a Difference?” that considers the potential impact of the new menu labeling requirements for chain restaurants.  As we previously reported (here and here), § 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires chain restaurants and retail food establishments to include calorie information on their menus.  In an effort to determine the potential impact of the law, ERS reviewed studies of consumer food choices conducted in geographical areas with menu labeling requirements already in place as well as studies on consumer eating behavior.  The studies had conflicting results, and ERS was inconclusive as to whether the menu labeling requirements will have any impact on consumer food choices. 

According to the article, studies suggest that Americans generally underestimate the calorie and fat content in restaurant menu items.  It would seem to follow that disclosing nutrition information on menus would lead Americans to choose lower calorie and lower fat foods, but ERS researchers found that this is not necessarily the case.  The article cites studies showing that people’s knowledge about health and nutrition has less impact on what they choose to eat when they are away from home than when they eat at home, and people dieting tend to choose less healthy options when eating out.  Also, the article points to two experiments that suggest that consumers may be primed to believe that foods that are identified as low in fat are not as satisfying as non-low fat foods. 

The article also points to conflicting results of studies of New York City’s calorie labeling law as an indication that it may be too soon to tell how federal law will change consumers’ habits.  New York City began requiring chain restaurants to disclose calorie information on their menus in 2008, and studies on the impact of the law have found conflicting results.  One study conducted in low-income, minority neighborhoods in New York City and similar neighborhoods in Newark, NJ, before and after the law went into effect, showed that although 88% of consumers in New York City said they were purchasing fewer calories, receipts from their purchases showed that people in New York City purchased about the same number of calories before and after the law took effect and about the same amount as people in Newark.  Research by Stanford University, however, showed that mandatory calorie posting lead to a 6% decrease in calories per transaction for food purchases at Starbucks in New York City. 

FDA intends to publish regulations implementing the menu labeling requirements by March 23.  Some in industry believe the regulations could cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to implement, and for now, it seems it will be wait and see as to whether the regulation will have any impact on consumer’s food choices.   

Categories: Foods