research workplace wellness

New Research Shows Positive Nutrition Benefits of Menu Labeling

As the U.S. Food & Drug Administration implements new menu labeling standards, the question arises: What does the research say?

The new standards allow well-run workplace wellness programs to create new conversations with — and new education opportunities for — members around healthy eating.

Said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D: “As we pass this new milestone with menu labels, we’ve already begun important steps towards the next nutrition-focused efforts to help Americans lead healthier lives as part of our new Nutrition Innovation Strategy.”

Yesterday we noted that the FDA cites a recent RAND Corporation study titled “Examining Consumer Responses to Calorie Information on Restaurant Menus in a Discrete Choice Experiment.”

The 2018 Rand 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.”

One part of the study is called the “Consumer Choice Experiment.” It seeks to address four areas:

  1. “Overall effect of providing calorie information. Is there an overall effect of calorie labeling on the menu items people choose? Is “average treatment effect” a meaningful concept in this type of study?”
  2. “Effect of labeling on calorie choice by restaurant type. Does the effect of providing calorie information differ across restaurant settings? Are study participants more or less responsive to labeling when selecting foods in standard restaurant settings versus food establishments that serve snacks or desserts (such as ice cream parlors or movie theaters)?”
  3. “Variation in consumer responses. Do responses to labels vary across study participants? Do study participants who would typically order large meals, in terms of calorie content, change their orders when presented with calorie information? Or are the effects of calorie-labeled menus concentrated among study participants who would typically order smaller or lower calorie meals (perhaps because they are already trying to reduce calorie intake)?”
  4. “Characteristics predicting response to calorie information. Can subgroups of individuals who are more or less likely to react to labeling be identified based on their observable characteristics?”

The results provide important information and guidance for leaders of well-run workplace wellness programs and people generally who seek improved nutrition.

  • Overall effect of providing calorie information. Our analysis of participants and their choices suggests that, among participants who selected at least one item, displaying calories on menus reduced the energy amount ordered by 30 kilocalories (kcal)1 (95 percent confidence interval [CI]: 20–40), corresponding to a decrease of 7 percent across all settings… Providing calorie information did not affect participants’ satisfaction with choices they made or their ratings of restaurants.”
  • Effect of labeling on calorie choice by restaurant type. Providing calorie information typically had a statistically significant effect, with a meaningful magnitude of effect size, in standard meal–type restaurant settings.”
  • Variation in consumer responses. The concept of an ‘average treatment effect’ does not imply that the effect of calorie information is uniform across the sample. Underlying an average effect may be substantial variation in how study participants respond to calorie information provided on menus… participants shown the calorie information were less likely to choose items in the 800– xiii
    1,000 kcal range and more likely to choose items in the 400–500 kcal range than those who were not shown that information.”
  • Characteristics predicting response to calorie information. The variation in response to calorie labels reflects, in part, individual preferences, which could be correlated with observable characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, and education. In this study, we saw a very strong direct association of sociodemographic characteristics with calories ordered… [However,] participants who prefer healthier foods, users of nutrition labels in supermarkets, and users of calorie labels in restaurants all ordered smaller meals. In addition, those participants responded more robustly to calorie information than others, by about 20 to 40 kcal.”

Tomorrow, we offer more study results focusing on the Evaluation of Menu Changes over Time.