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Menu labeling: What's taking so long?

Menu labeling: What's taking so long?

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Here’s one unintended consequence of the two-years-and-counting time delay between the start of the federal rulemaking process for new menu labeling requirements and its eventual conclusion. Researchers have had time to study the rule’s primary mandate—calorie counts on menus—and have determined there’s a more effective way to convey this important nutritional information.

Restaurant operators aren’t the only ones wondering when menu labeling is going to become a reality. Mandatory menu labeling became law in 2010 when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed. The first proposed rule about menu labeling was floated in April 2011.  

Then the lobbyists took over.  Here’s where the process stands now:

Coming up with a new rule “has gotten extremely thorny,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the AP in late March of this year.

"There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side,” she says. “We have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable.” The National Restaurant Association is a strong proponent. Supermarkets and convenience stores are among those who oppose the proposed rule.

But the parties may be arguing over regulations that won’t be all that effective when finally implemented.  Research conducted by University of Illinois professor Brenna Ellison demonstrates that if you want to quickly communicate nutritional information to restaurant customers while they’re studying a menu, standalone calorie counts aren’t the best way to do it.

Ellison is the lead author of a study, “Looking at the Label and Beyond: The Effects of Calorie Labels, Health Consciousness and Demographics on Caloric Intake in Restaurants,” that appears in the current International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

She and her co-authors conducted an experiment in which full-service restaurant patrons were given one of three menus. One version had no information about calories; a second listed the number of calories for each dish; and a third included traffic light symbols (showing a red, yellow or green color to indicate whether a dish was healthful, neutral or unhealthful according to recommended calorie range estimates) along with calorie counts.

The study found that “the traffic light may function as a normative suggestion as to what is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for diners to eat,” Ellison says. “Thus, by reducing the number of calories ordered for diners across all levels of health-consciousness, the combination calorie-traffic light label seems to be more effective than the numeric calorie label alone.”

Which is to say, the multiyear battle being waged over mandatory calorie count labeling is focused on a method that may not be the best one to encourage healthful eating.

“A downside to the Affordable Care Act legislation as currently proposed is that it just provides a number,” Ellison says. “If we’ve learned anything about consumers, it’s that people often operate under time constraints and are very convenience-oriented. Not every restaurant diner has time to read—or even wants to read—the number of calories listed for each menu item. Those decisions are often made quickly. For this reason, a symbol might be especially helpful in communicating with the broadest groups of consumers.”’

Another key takeaway from Ellison’s study is that calorie labels exert more influence on entree choices than on other meal components.

“While both calorie labels reduced entrée calories ordered, both also actually increased extra calories ordered from additional sides, desserts, drinks, etc., compared to the menu with no nutrition information,” she says. “So there does seem to be what we call a ‘licensing effect,’ which could also potentially be a concern. In other words, people might reward themselves for ordering a low-calorie entrée by adding on a dessert, ultimately negating the entrée calorie reduction. Research has shown people don’t want to be future-oriented. When you’re hungry, you’re hungry now. You’re not thinking of yourself in 20 years.”

Ellison says the traffic light menu symbols are used in the U.K. and Australia in a slightly different form.  “We wanted to try it here. You could use a star rating system or some other variation, but negative information—in this case, a red traffic light—seems to affect people more than positive.”

Operators who want to provide customers with as much nutritional information as possible may wish to investigate this method. Chances are good you can put it into action before the final federal rule governing menu labeling becomes a reality.

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