American consumers generally support menu-labeling legislation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to change their dining-out habits.
Menu-labeling legislation is about to become a reality in the United States, and you can be sure the Food Standards Agency and Parliament are paying close attention.
In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a proposed set of regulations outlining how chain restaurants and other retail food establishments must post the calorie content of the items they serve. The FDA has been seeking comments on their proposal, and the legislation, required by 2010’s Health Care Reform Act, will likely be put into effect early in 2012. Restaurants would have to comply within six months.
In short, the FDA’s rules would affect restaurants with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering substantially the same menu. It defines “restaurant or similar retail food establishment” as one that presents itself as a restaurant or uses 50% of its floor area to sell food.
Calories must be posted “clearly and prominently” on menus and menu boards, including at the drive-thru. Ranges are allowed for combination meals or those in which different options are available, and exceptions are made for limited-time offers and market tests of new items. Each menu will have to include a statement about suggested calorie intake, similar to the statement on packaged goods. The restaurants also have to make available written information on other nutritional content such as calories from fat, sodium, protein and carbohydrates.
The goal of the legislation is noble enough: to help people make better choices to eat healthfully and reduce obesity. However, it is not clear whether menu labeling has a significant impact. Research done in 2009 by Health Affairs, which studied consumer behavior after New York City implemented its regulations in 2008, found no change in calorie consumption. But a New York City Department of Health study found that those who paid attention to calorie information bought items with 106 fewer calories than those who didn’t.
Technomic research shows that more than six out of 10 consumers are in favor of menu-labeling legislation, though fewer of them expect to change their dining out habits because of it. We surveyed 500 consumers in early May 2011, a month after the FDA presented its proposed legislation but a year after the Health Care Reform Act, which required some sort of menu-labeling mandate, was passed. The research was undertaken to determine consumers’ attitudes about the upcoming legislation and whether they would eat out less often, purchase different items or ignore the information completely.
Many Consumers Are Concerned
To get an idea of how consumers currently use nutrition information, the survey asked when deciding which restaurant to go to, how important is it that a restaurant offers food low in fat or calories, serves organic items, posts nutritional information and other health-driven factors.
Almost six out of 10 consumers said that a restaurant offering healthy portion sizes is a deciding factor. Despite the context clues, it is possible that some respondents defined “healthy portion sizes” as large and substantial rather than appropriately sized for a person’s recommended daily caloric intake.
Nevertheless, about half of the respondents say they determine which restaurant to go to based on whether the restaurant serves food low in fat, sodium or calories. A slightly smaller percentage (44%) says whether a restaurant offers food low in sugar is a very or somewhat important factor in their decision.
Forty-three percent of consumers want a restaurant to post nutritional information on the menu, saying it’s important to their decision on whether to visit.
But Awareness Is Low
Although 43% of consumers say posted nutritional information is an important factor on where they decide to eat, half of consumers are not aware that federal laws will soon require chain restaurants to display calorie counts on menus.
Whether they knew it was in the works or not, 64% of consumers agree or strongly agree with the legislation. Following are some of the open-ended responses from consumers who agree with the legislation:
• “A lot of people don’t understand how much they are eating when they are out, and this info should be disclosed.”
• “It would help people to make better and healthier choices for their families.”
• “Because some chain restaurant foods are insanely high in calories and people don’t realize.”
• “Decisions I make quite often take into account the number of calories and amount of fat. I would very much like to have the information readily available.”
• “I agree because so many people nowadays are eating more healthy and they would like to know the calorie intake on the food they consume.”
And here are some comments from those who disagree:
• “If you are at a drive-thru, people are going to get upset that it takes too long.”
• “If you are eating out, why worry about the fat and calories?”
• “Because it’s up to the consumer to make intelligent choices. Why is the government making decisions for us?”
• “You can’t legislate good eating habits.”
• “I don’t think it needs to be on the actual food display or menu. I think a simple paper flyer located near the counter would suffice.”
Agreement Skews Younger and Female
More women than men agree with menu-labeling legislation: 70% of women agree or strongly agree vs. 57% of men. There are some big differences in responses from different age groups as well. Fully three-quarters of those aged 18 to 34 agree with the legislation. Older consumers are least likely to agree with the mandate, though almost half of them do.
Likewise, younger consumers are more likely to say that the posted calorie information will affect their dining habits. Fully 48% of consumers 18-34 predict they will pay greater attention to calorie content, and 46% expect to pay more attention to the nutritional value of the food. Meanwhile, 32% of those 65 and older would pay more attention to calories, and the same percentage would pay attention to the nutritional content.
While a quarter of respondents 35 years old and older expect to change how often they make food at home based on menu-labeling legislation, 44% of consumers 18-34 say it will likely affect how often they make food at home.
Women are also more likely to say their eating-out behaviors will change as a result of calorie information being posted prominently on menus: 50% say they will pay more attention to calorie content (vs. 34% of men), and 47% will pay more attention to nutritional content (vs. 33% of men).
Likewise, more female consumers than male predict menu labeling will change what they order in restaurants, which restaurants they visit and how often they visit restaurants.
Technomic’s survey asked respondents to comment on why seeing calorie counts would not change their behavior. Their responses tended toward being unconcerned with buying healthful items when they eat out (or not at all), feeling that they already know which foods are better for them, and putting taste before calories. Those who do expect to change their behavior commented on the ability to be more health-conscious and compare choices.
Conclusions and Opportunity
What consumers say they expect to do and what they actually do are often very different. However, a large number of them say knowledge of calorie counts will impact where and what they eat. If their expectations become reality, operators that do not offer healthful options and/or those that are low in calories stand to lose business to those that do.
Technomic research has shown that consumers tend to be more willing to indulge on special occasions and on the weekend, so menu developers may have more leeway at these times. However, they should consider lower-calorie items targeted toward weekday breakfast and lunch customers, because these are the dayparts during which consumers are most likely to seek healthful items.
Do Customers Care About Calories