A new Colorado State University study has found that menu calorie labeling alone may not affect consumer choices.
Providing calorie information on menu boards for chain restaurants with 20 or more locations became mandatory in May 2018 due to the Affordable Care Act. Policy-makers and public health advocates have argued that the change would help consumers make more informed and healthy food choices.
Food ‘value’ considerations
The new study, “Counterbalancing Effects of Calorie Labeling: Why Menu Calorie Labeling Alone May Not Affect Average Calories Ordered,” authored by CSU Assistant Professor of Marketing Chris Berry, found meal choice selection was more complicated than just considering the number of calories being ordered. The effect of the provision of menu calorie labeling on consumer meal choices was influenced by food “value” considerations, including consumers’ emphasis on health, taste and quantity. The research was conducted with Scot Burton, distinguished professor of marketing at the University of Arkansas; Elizabeth Howlett, professor of marketing at Washington State University; and Christopher Newman, associate professor of marketing at the University of Mississippi.
“Our findings demonstrate that the success of menu calorie labeling in affecting calories ordered depends on the importance of the meal attributes consumers consider most strongly when choosing restaurant meals,” Berry said.
Study results showed that, when shown calorie information, health-value-oriented consumers leaned toward more healthy meals with fewer calories. In contrast, the provision of calorie information led quantity-value-oriented consumers to be drawn to larger meals, and taste-value-oriented consumers to choose meals based on flavor. Both of these types of meals are more likely to be higher in calories.
“Our specific results suggest that when these countervailing influences of food-value orientations are considered in combination, they can counterbalance the effects of one another, leading to an overall nonsignificant or weak effect of calorie labeling on calories ordered in restaurant settings,” Berry said.
Across both an online study and a restaurant field study, researchers showed how and why these differing food-value orientations need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the success or failure of initiatives aimed at improving consumer food choices and overall health from calorie labeling at chain restaurants. Their findings offer a compelling explanation for the plethora of studies that have shown nonsignificant or limited effects of menu calorie labeling on calories ordered.
Diverging from healthy choices
“Calorie information can be used by consumers to enhance food value in ways that diverge from healthy choices, an outcome generally not foreseen by most policy-makers, consumer health advocates and consumer researchers,” Berry said. “While policy-makers can mandate that information be provided, it is far more difficult to control how consumers choose to utilize the information when making food product choices.”
The findings are forthcoming in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. The full paper is available at https://www.ama.org/documents/jppm.17.112.pdf.