IHOP menu

Almost a year ago, New York City enacted legislation that forced all fast food restaurants to begin printing calorie counts on their menus.

At that time, there was a lot of squawking from the restaurateurs about the effectiveness of the new bylaw.

Since then, quite a few different communities have adopted similar legislation.

And still, the restaurateurs (and others) question if these bylaws have done anything to improve the eating habits of their patrons.


So, have they?

According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Researchpeople will make healthier choices if restaurants provide nutritional data.

The Science

Researchers found that “using only the sense of taste, smell, and sight to accurately estimate the levels of calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium found in a typical restaurant food serving is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most consumers.”

No surprise there. Countless studies have shown that people habitually underestimate how many calories they eat per meal / day.

So, they set out to examine how providing calorie and nutrient information on restaurant menus and menu boards influences consumers’ food-related evaluations and choices.

They looked at how participants’ prior expectations came into play and whether providing calorie and nutrient information after the meal changed their future food choices.

The researchers found that providing nutritional information can influence subsequent food consumption, especially when consumers’ expectations are not fulfilled when they examine the information.

“When a ‘great taste’ claim was used to describe a restaurant menu item, the provision of calorie information did not affect consumers’ perceptions, presumably because foods that claim great taste are typically expected to be relatively high in calories”.

Translation: People know that the Quadruple Bypass Burger is loaded with calories, salt, saturated fat, etc, and counting calories is the last thing on their mind. For these customers, nutritional info printed on a menu is a waste of time.


Quadruple Bypass Burger from the Heart Attack Grill
Quadruple Bypass Burger from the Heart Attack Grill


“On the other hand, when a ‘low calorie’ claim was presented but the menu item was higher in calories than expected, the provision of nutritional information increased the perceived likelihood of 1) gaining weight and 2) developing heart disease.”

The study shows that nutritional information can help consumers moderate their eating over time. In one study, participants ate a sandwich that they later found was unexpectedly high in calories. After this discovery, the participants consumed fewer snacks throughout the rest of the day.

Translation: Customers concerned about the amount of fast food calories that they inhaled at lunch cut back on their intake for the rest of the day.

They didn’t cancel their trip to McDonalds, they just skipped the afternoon coffee & muffin to make up for it.


Based upon the current research, nutritional info printed on fast food menus:

  • Is a useful tool for people that are concerned about the quantity & quality of the food that they eat.
  • Is irrelevant to those people who don’t give a damn


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