Some say labeling makes a difference, some say no. It depends on many things: who you ask, what types of restaurants, what location of the country, and how a study is conducted.
You might have read a recent study claiming that just about no one who is anyone pays a mind to nutrition information posted in fast food restaurants. This study, out of Yale University and published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, counted the number of customers who read nutrition information at a few select locations (McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain) in both urban and suburban settings. Of the 4000+ patrons, only six (0.1) looked at it before buying (others looked after buying, but they looked!). This might be used as an argument either for or against menu labeling. For: “We need to make the information more prominent.” Against: “Why bother? No one cares.” I have other questions/observations about this:
1. Patrons at these restaurants are, more likely than not, repeat customers with a pre-conceived idea of what they want. Most people enter a McDonald’s or Starbucks knowing what they want already; they’re not going to scour a menu or nutrition information.
2. People might feel self-conscious viewing the nutrition information on a pamphlet or wall chart.
3. Maybe folks already are aware of the nutrition information, from previous visits, looking at the restaurant’s web site.
4. Most people who frequent these types of quickserve restaurants are not there for a healthy meal; if they were interested in health food for that meal, they might prefer to go to a restaurant that caters to those needs.
Wouldn’t this study’s results be a lot different if researchers parked themselves at a new health-oriented quickserve or fast-casual restaurant, where folks weren’t already aware of what was on the menu?
On the other hand, a study came out this week, “People Will Make Healthier Choices If Restaurants Provide Nutritional Data, Study Finds.” In this study, whose design is completely different than the first, the researchers evaluated whether providing calorie and nutrient information after the patrons ate the food changed their subsequent food choices. They found that, indeed, providing this information changed people’s future selections. This was especially true when a person ordering an item labeled “low calorie” had more calories than they expected.
The literature abounds with different approaches to research and different conclusions that either support or deny the backing of menu labeling laws. For many, the bottom line is disclosure: no one has to change their behavior, but if they want to, they should have the facts available to them to make informed decisions.