Weighing In on Menu Labeling

Chain restaurants that list calorie counts may offer more low-calorie items overall


If your favorite chain helps its customers make healthier choices by listing calorie counts on its menu, you may be in luck.

A new study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) found that US-based chain restaurants that voluntarily listed calorie counts on their menus tended to also offer more low-calorie items overall. In fact, these restaurants averaged nearly 140 fewer calories per item than restaurants that didn't list calorie counts.

These findings come as all US-based chain restaurants with more than 20 outlets will be required to list calorie counts on their menus starting in December 2016. The goal of this new rule is to help Americans eat healthier by steering them toward lower-calorie options.

"The menu items in restaurants with voluntary labeling have fewer average calories than restaurants without labeling," said study co-author Julia A. Wolfson, MPP, a PhD candidate in health policy and management at JHSPH, in a press release. "If other chain restaurants follow this same trend once mandatory menu labeling goes into effect, it could significantly improve the restaurant environment for consumers. This could get consumers to eat healthier without having to change their behavior, something that is a very difficult thing to do and sustain."

For this study, Wolfson and team looked at data from MenuStat (a database of menu items at 66 of the 100 largest US chain restaurants developed by the New York Department of Public Health and Hygiene) for 2012-2014.

In 2012, the average menu item at restaurants that voluntarily listed calorie counts contained 260 calories. By comparison, the average menu item at restaurants that didn't list calorie counts contained 399 calories. In 2014, the average was 263 calories at restaurants with voluntary calorie listing and 402 calories at restaurants without.

Overall, the chains that voluntarily listed calorie counts on their menus averaged nearly 140 fewer calories per item than those that didn't — with many of those calories attributed to food rather than beverage items.

Similar results were also found when restaurants with voluntary calorie listings were compared to competitors with similar menu items that didn't list.

Wolfson and team found that chains with voluntary calorie listing introduced about twice as many new items in 2013 and one-third as many new items in 2014 compared to chains that that didn't list — a finding that potentially reflects increasing consumer demand for healthier items.

According to these researchers, many consumers significantly underestimate the number of calories menu items contain. However, evidence suggests that menu labeling has little effect on consumer behavior.

"The biggest impact from mandatory menu labeling may come from restaurants decreasing the calories in their menu items rather than expecting consumers to notice the calorie information and, subsequently, order different menu items," Wolfson said. "Given how often Americans eat in restaurants, if more chain restaurants decrease calories on their menus to a level that we are seeing in restaurants that already label, this has the potential to reduce population-level obesity."

This study was published Nov. 2 in the journal Health Affairs.

Information on funding sources and conflicts of interest was not available at the time of publication.