Calorie Counts on Menus Cause Few Changes in Orders
CHICAGO -- The U.S. food and Drug Administration is about to submit proposed regulations for the federal menu labeling law, but according to the NPD Group, which tracks consumer use of foodservice outlets, the law will not strongly affect long-term consumer ordering patterns.
"Calories aren't the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD and author of the report. "We found through our research that quality, as in fresh, natural, and nutritious, is the most important healthy eating attribute when they dine out."
The new law requires restaurant chains with 20 or more units to display calorie counts for standard menu items, along with calorie counts for each standard serving of food at a buffet or salad bar, to be implemented by the second half of 2012. Several cities and states, such as California, New York City and Philadelphia, already have local labeling laws.
NPD's recent report, titled "Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat," covers the results of a survey conducted in which adults were asked to indicate which items they would order from two different versions of a typical fast-food restaurant menu, said the group. The first version of the menu had no calorie labels; the second version had labels beside each menu.
In comparing the before and after ordering patterns, NPD found that consumers did choose items with fewer calories, but the difference was fairly small, according to the report. The average calorie count of items from the unlabeled menu was 1,021 compared to 901 from the menu that included calorie labels. Consumers also ordered an average of 3.3 items from the menu without calorie labels versus 3.2 from the menu with them.
The report also noted the labeled menu did cause a decrease in the number of orders for items already declining in terms of restaurant servings, including French fries, milkshakes and onion rings, but increased the number of orders for items such as diet sodas, grilled chicken wraps and salads.
"The takeaway for restaurant chains is that, in the short term, we expect consumers may react to calorie labeling with some shift in foods/beverages ordered, but expect that old behaviors will return in time," says Riggs. "Operators may want to plan for some initial shift in product mix when the new menus are presented to consumers. Lower-calorie sides might be highlighted or promoted when the menu change is made, which could assist in keeping order sizes and check sizes up."