Menus and Miles

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As part of the Affordable Care Act — the health-care reform bill signed into law in 2010 by President Obama — restaurants with more than 20 locations will soon be required to list the calorie content of menu items. While this information will be welcomed by many consumers, it is unclear how much of an impact it will actually have on what people order. A 2008 study that compared New York City (which had just adopted calorie-labeling requirements) with nearby Newark, New Jersey, found that among low-income people, these labels increased awareness of caloric content but didn’t reduce caloric intake by very much, if at all. It is difficult, however, to measure the exact effect of calorie-labeling on menus, since there is so much variation in what people order, and many factors can affect consumer choices.

One tidy way to estimate the effect of calorie-labeling, however, is to simulate the process of ordering from a menu and to record the choices that people make. A recent study, published in the journal Appetite, used this approach to measure the effects of calorie-labeling and other information on food choices. As noted in an article at Medical News Today, the study used a Web-based survey to ask 802 women what foods they would order from one of several different variations of the same menu. One variation had no calorie information. Another variation had calorie information only; another had both calories and the minutes of walking required to burn them, and yet another had calories and the number of miles (rather than minutes) required to burn them. The menu was meant to simulate a fast-food restaurant and had items such as burgers, sandwiches, sides, salads, desserts, and drinks.

Which variation of the menu a participant was shown, it turns out, had a significant effect on what she ordered. Participants who were shown the menu with no calorie information ordered, on average, food containing 1,020 calories. Those shown only calorie information ordered 927 calories, while those who saw the menu with both calories and minutes of walking needed to burn them ordered 916 calories. Those who saw both calories and the miles of walking needed to burn them ordered only 826 calories’ worth of food. When asked at the end of the survey what information they would prefer to see on menus, 45% chose calories plus minutes of walking needed to burn them, 37% chose calories plus miles of walking, 13% chose calories information only, and 5% chose no calorie information.

As the study’s authors noted, it is unknown whether the results of the study actually estimate people’s behavior in the real world. After all, a survey that includes calorie information but delivers no actual food may make people more aware of that information, or more self-conscious, than they would be in an environment full of people who are eating. Displaying the number of miles of walking needed to burn off a food, however, may get the attention of diners in a way that the more abstract calorie count does not.

What do you think — should chain-restaurant menus be required to show the number of miles of walking needed to burn off the calories in food items? Do you think this information would have an effect on your food choices, and would you find it helpful? What other nutrition information, if any, would you like to see on restaurant menus? How much information is practical to show? Leave a comment below!

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