Menu labeling's impact on food choices

This month's issue of Health Affairs is entirely focused on Food and Health.  There is so much new research highlighting promising strategies, new data and neat infographics for anyone interested in these issues. 

Yet one study stands out: "Restaurants With Calories Displayed On Menus Had Lower Calorie Counts Compared To Restaurants Without Such Labels."  While the jury's still out on how menu labeling affects consumer habits and choices, this study is another (significant) notch in the plus category for menu labeling. 

The study authors compared calorie counts of foods between restaurants that voluntarily implemented national menu labeling and those that did not.  (Menu labeling will be mandatory in the vast majority of chain restaurants at the end of 2016 but in the meantime, several chains have already started to display calorie counts.)   This research found that the average per item calorie count was lower for restaurants that had menu labeling by roughly 140 calories.  This difference held true even for new menu items offered in 2013 and 2014.

So while individual consumers may or may not be swayed by seeing calories on menu boards, restaurant chains may alter the options consumers see in the first place.  It's no surprise, really, as calorie shock could certainly push consumers elsewhere.  And 140 calories may not seem like much, but it's roughly equivalent to 1 1/2 orders of a kid's McDonald's fries, and is about the same as a can of soda.  That's significant, especially when families are eating at these restaurant chains sometimes multiple times each day.