Does Mandatory Menu Labeling Change Behaviour?

One of the proposed strategies to nudge consumers to eat fewer calories is the mandatory labeling of menus. While this makes intuitive sense, the actual impact of this strategy is not clear.

This issue was now addressed by Eric Finkelstein and colleagues from Duke-National University of Singapore, in a study just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The investigators took advantage of a “natural experiment” made possible by a mandatory menu-labeling policy in King County, Washington. Beginning in January 2009, this policy requires all restaurant chains with 15 or more locations to disclose calorie information at the point of purchase.

To examine the effect of this new regulation, the investigators compared the transactions and purchasing behavior at one Mexican fast-food chain with locations within and adjacent to King County.

Seven King County restaurants and seven control locations were studied immediately following the law until the posting of drive-through menu boards (January 2009 to July 2009) and a second period following the drive-through postings (August 2009 through January 2010).

The researchers found no impact of the regulation on purchasing behavior. In fact, there was absolutely no change in transactions and calories per transaction between control and intervention locations after the law was enacted.

Thus, the authors conclude that (at least in this setting), mandatory menu labeling does not promote healthier food-purchasing behavior.

In the discussion of their findings, the authors point out a couple of important caveats:

because [the study] was at the store level, it was not possible to identify whether certain subgroups (e.g., more health conscious, parents ordering for children, or those with chronic illnesses who are more motivated to choose healthier options) differentially benefited from the legislation.

[in addition] this analysis focused solely on demand responses to menu-labeling legislation. Future studies should examine the extent to which mandatory menu labeling encourages supply-side changes and their subsequent impact on fast-food purchases. Supply-side effects may involve changes in in-store promotions, product mix, or reformulation of existing products.

Despite these caveats, I would certainly remain rather skeptical that simply putting calories on menus, without also promoting caloric literacy and specifically urging consumers to lower their caloric consumption, will have any major effect on eating behaviours.

Indeed, doing one without the other – or in other words – simply putting calories on food items or menus, when most people have no clue as to what those numbers actually mean or how they can use those numbers to manage their daily “calorie account” is likely to remain little more than a well-intended gesture.

Of course, this should not mean that the whole notion of putting calories on menus should be abandoned – I for one, would certainly wish I could look at the caloric content of meals that I am ordering in any restaurant.

What do my readers think – would calories on menus help you (or your clients) with weight management efforts?

What would consumers need to know in order to actually use those numbers to better manage their weights?

Toronto, Ontario

Finkelstein EA, Strombotne KL, Chan NL, & Krieger J (2011). Mandatory menu labeling in one fast-food chain in king county, washington. American journal of preventive medicine, 40 (2), 122-7 PMID: 21238859