food workplace wellness

Food Choice Customization Provides Education Opportunity for Workplace Wellness Programs

In our continuing coverage of the new U.S. Food & Drug Administration implementation of menu labeling standards, we look further at research results that continue to support the benefits of increased information around the food we eat.

As background: Well-run workplace programs that make healthy eating part of their overall approach may have a fresh opportunity to engage and educate members by utilizing news of — and facts from — the new standards and accompanying research. 

The FDA cites the 2018 RAND Corporation study titled “Examining Consumer Responses to Calorie Information on Restaurant Menus in a Discrete Choice Experiment.” The study “looked at how the provision of calorie information on restaurant menus affects consumers. To gain insight on the consumer perspective, we designed an online experiment in which participants chose items from the menus of nine different restaurant settings, ranging from fast-food outlets to movie theaters. The calorie labels on those menus followed the requirements described in the FDA rule, and the survey also collected data on sociodemographic characteristics, attitudes toward food, and use of nutrition and calorie labels.”

In a range of areas, the results show positive effects, including in:

  • “Overall effect of providing calorie information.”
  • “Effect of labeling on calorie choice by restaurant type.”
  • “Variation in consumer responses.”
  • “Characteristics predicting response to calorie information.”

The research also examined “Evaluation of Menu Changes over Time.” Here researchers sought “to evaluate restaurant menu changes over time and by type of restaurant. Previous studies have suggested that large chain restaurants reduced the number of calories in newly introduced menu items between 2012 and 2014. We analyzed data collected by MenuStat supplemented with 2010 data collected by RAND. With menu-item information from 164 restaurants, we examined how menus of major chain restaurants have changed from 2010 to 2015.”

Unfortunately, researchers “found no statistically significant evidence of a change in calories per menu item between 2010 and 2015… across ten categories of food items, the calorie amounts per item category were not substantially different in 2015 than they were in 2010.”

However, “We did find an important trend: Restaurants increasingly offer customizable items (in which the customer chooses a protein and one or two sides and/or condiments).”

This trend presents a challenge — but also an opportunity for well-run workplace wellness programs:

  • The challenge: “The presentation and usability of nutrition information also becomes more complex with customizable items. Labeling calorie content by menu item components makes information less user friendly, but if only calorie ranges were provided it could obscure the total calories of a given dish choice.”
  • The opportunity: “Future consumer education efforts may need to focus on raising awareness of this customization trend to improve customers’ understanding of how to use calorie information displays across restaurants.”