February 3, 2010
Menu Labeling Updates: New Research Shows that Menu Labeling is Curbing Consumers’ Caloric Intake – and also Leading Major Restaurant Chains to Offer Healthier Menu Options
This is a guest post by Kate Armstrong, Staff Attorney, Public Health Law Center, William Mitchell College of Law.
According to two recent studies, nutrition labeling on menus in chain restaurants is leading consumers to make lower-calorie menu selections for themselves and for their children.
The first study, released in early January 2010, was conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The Stanford study, Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants, focused on the impact of mandatory calorie posting on consumers’ purchasing decisions using sales data from Starbucks stores in New York City, where calorie labeling has been required by city regulation since April 2008. It found that Starbucks consumers began switching to lower-calorie food options after menu labeling was required, resulting in average calories per transaction falling by six percent (6%).
From an Atlantic article about the Stanford study (which also references two complementary studies conducted by the NYC health department and researchers at Yale University):
The Stanford study, which compared data from Starbucks stores in New York City against stores in Boston and Philadelphia, where calorie-labeling laws are going into effect (they did on January 1 in Philadelphia, and will this November in Boston) is the first widely noted sign that people do change their ordering behavior when they see calorie counts—though not the first, as New York City health department preliminary studies, and a new study at Yale, published last month, are showing. Starbucks customers reduced calories in their food (but not their drink) orders by 6 percent overall and, more dramatically, by 26 percent if they had previously been ordering high-calorie Starbucks items. Starbucks profits didn't decrease—an answer to initial fears from food companies over labeling laws. But, unreassuringly for fast-food chains, sales at Starbucks stores within 100 meters of Dunkin Donuts stores increased by an average of three percent.
The second study, published in the January 25, 2010, online version of Pediatrics, was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. The researchers used McDonald’s menus and looked at how parents reacted to nutritional information when making fast food selections for their children. They found that when nutritional information is available on fast food restaurant menus, parents are more apt to pick lower-calorie foods for their children.
From a BusinessWeek article on the study, quoting lead researcher Dr. Pooja Tandon:
"When parents are provided with calorie information they chose about 100 calories less [per meal] for their 3- to 6-year-old child compared to parents who didn't have that information," said lead researcher Dr. Pooja Tandon, a graduate fellow in the department of general pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal notes that local and state menu labeling legislation is leading several national restaurant chains to reformulate existing menu items to make them healthier, and to introduce new, lower-calorie menu options. While national restaurant chains say that product reformulation is driven by customer demand for healthier options, it is also likely motivated by pending national menu labeling legislation:
The restaurant chains say the low-calorie shift was driven by customer demand rather than impending legislation. But providing calorie counts now will help them get ahead of a proposed federal law calling for chains with 20 or more restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. The proposed menu labeling requirements are part of health care legislation being debated in Congress.
Click here for the proposed national menu labeling legislation (see Section 4205, Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants) contained within the Senate health care reform bill, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed in the Senate on December 24, 2009.
Although national menu labeling legislation is packaged within the larger – and now up-in-the-air health care reform bill – it is still anticipated to pass this year, whether as part of national health care reform or as stand-alone legislation.
Post by Donna M. Byrne, Professor of Law, William Mitchell College of Law
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This is something that I started noticing late last year and I'm All for it. It definitely influences me to go with the more healthier choices on the menu when I eat out. The more restaurants and franchises that partake in healthy menu labeling, the better it will be for us as a nation.
Posted by: Rahim Samuel | Feb 3, 2010 8:15:25 PM