Thursday, August 13, 2009

Calorie listings on menus work

I just read a some follow-up research to the study I blogged about earlier. These researchers looked at what happens when you put nutritional information on the menu. They found it to be effective in several ways:

  • When the calories listed were high, it increased the customer’s expectations that they would gain weight and/or get weight-related disease. This may seem obvious, but they compared it to a menu condition with a label of “low calorie” and a menu condition with the ingredients listed. These could have had the same effect, but didn’t.
  • When customers discovered that their food had more calories than they expected, they ate less over the course of the day to compensate. So the calorie listings had real effects on behavior, not just perceptions or expectations. This is important because we often see people say they will do the healthy thing “later” but then don’t. With menus that list calories, there is a real behavior change.
  • Customers that had intentions to eat right rated the menu items lower when they had higher calories. But other customers didn’t change their ratings at all. But they did eat less later.
So what does this tell us? Basically, it means that menus really should have at least the total calories listed. It may be too much to have other things (fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, etc) even though these would help people with specific health issues like diabetes. But because research has also found that people have high perceived correlations among food attributes (when we think something has lots of calories, we also think it has lots of the other bad stuff and vice versa), people with these conditions would stay away from menu items even if they are just listed as high calorie. The sacrifice here is that some foods are high calorie but are really healthy otherwise (e.g. almonds). But on most menus I have seem, usually the perceived correlations are right on target. The hamburger where they add butter to the bun, oil to the meat, and then stack on a few extra slices of cheese and “special sauce” is more likely.