The theory behind posting nutritional information on restaurant menus is that consumers will change what they buy when they know their usual choices are high in calories, saturated fat or sodium, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.
That theory may be wrong, however, according to a new study by researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and the Seattle-area public-health department. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, tracked what happened at the Taco Time chain in the 13 months after a menu-labeling law went into effect in King County, which includes Seattle.
Researchers compared seven restaurants within King County to seven located outside of the county — and thus not subject to the new law. They found the law had no statistically significant impact on the amount of calories people purchased.
Lead author Eric Finkelstein, an associate professor of health services at Duke-NUS, said he was surprised to find no effect at all.
Taco Time already had a “Healthy Highlights” icon to indicate more healthful options. Adding more detailed calorie, fat and sodium data may be superfluous, he said. After all, the nutritional facts label introduced to packaged foods in the mid-1990s didn’t do anything to stem the rising tide of obesity.
This research has larger implications, because the health-care overhaul law specified that menu labeling will soon be the law of the land for chain restaurants with at least 20 locations. The study’s authors recommend further research “to identify the circumstances under which mandatory menu labeling is likely to be most effective.” (One Pacific Northwest burger chain is taking another tack, printing nutritional data on customer receipts.)
Rather than changing consumer behavior, the menu labeling law may instead be more effective on the supply side, Finkelstein says. Restaurants may be slightly embarrassed by having to call attention to the zillions of calories in their Super Fatty Burger, and might then try to rejigger their menu items to bring down calories, saturated fat or sodium.
“Chains are looking for small changes that improve the health content but don’t change taste,” he said.