Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is one of the only cities we know of that requires some restaurant chains to list sodium content on their menus. So it goes without saying that we were eagerly awaiting the results of their menu labelling research.
This week, the results were published in two different journals, and the results are mixed. In a nutshell, the law seems to be making more of an impact on customers in full service restaurants where printed menus include the amounts of calories, sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and carbohydrates for each menu item. In fast food restaurants, where only calories are posted on the menu board, customers were less likely to see and use the information to make a healthier choice.
Here are a few interesting highlights of the research studies:
In full service restaurants,
– 76% of customers saw the nutrition information on the menu and 34% of them reported that the nutrition info influenced their ordering decisions.
– Those who used the nutrition information chose meals with 400 fewer calories and 370 mg less sodium.
– 26% of all customers reported using the nutrition information when deciding what to order.
– Overall, customers at labeled restaurants purchased 151 fewer calories and 224 mg less sodium compared to customers at non-labeled restaurants.
– Calorie and sodium levels in full service restaurant meals remain excessively high. Amongst those who used the nutrition information in deciding what to order, the average amount of calories purchased was still over 1200 with nearly 2800 mg of sodium. (Those who did not use the nutrition information purchased meals with over 1700 calories and over 3300 mg of sodium!)
In fast food restaurants,
– 38% of customers saw the calorie information on the menu.
– 10% of customers reported buying fewer calories as a result of seeing the calorie information.
– 3% of customers reported buying more calories as a result of seeing calorie information.
– the average number of calories purchased did not significantly change from the time before menu labelling went into effect (959 calories vs. 904 calories – similar to the calorie levels purchased in the comparison city of Baltimore where there is no menu labelling law).
The research studies also confirmed that females, those with more education and those with higher incomes were most likely to use menu labelling information. These are some of the factors that may be responsible for the mixed results.
The fact that only 38% of the fast food customers noticed the calorie labelling information is both surprising and disappointing, but it tells us two things: Firstly, it is important to increase public awareness of menu labelling. The author notes that in Philadelphia, the menu labelling law did not get much media or public attention. (Here’s where programs like Savvy Diner can play a big role!)
Secondly, the menu labelling information needs to be prominently displayed so that it is apparent to people from the ordering line. The design of the menu board is hugely important. Indeed, there was a 15% difference between customers who noticed the calorie information at the two chains participating in the fast food restaurant study. While 49% of the Burger King customers noticed the calorie postings, only 34% of the McDonald’s customers noticed it.
The factors that get customers to see and use menu labelling in different types of restaurants is sure to be an area of further study.