Calorie Labels May Alter Menus

WASHINGTON The new federal law that will require U.S. chain restaurants to display calorie information on menus may lead restaurants to reformulate recipes, according to a recent analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. In Will Calorie Labeling in Restaurants Make a Difference? the authors note that food consumed away from home now accounts for about 33% of total

WASHINGTON — The new federal law that will require U.S. chain restaurants to display calorie information on menus may lead restaurants to reformulate recipes, according to a recent analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

In “Will Calorie Labeling in Restaurants Make a Difference?” the authors note that food consumed away from home now accounts for about 33% of total calories consumed and 42% of total food expenditures by U.S. households. A 2010 ERS analysis indicated that each away-from-home meal increases the average daily calorie intake of American adults by 134 calories. When dining out, Americans also tend to consume more saturated fat and cholesterol and less fiber, calcium and iron than when eating meals prepared at home.

The ERS report notes that increased consumer awareness often leads suppliers to reformulate recipes in order to accommodate new health trends. The popularity of calcium-fortified juices, the elimination of trans fats from many brands during the past five years, and the growth of whole grain products are all cited as recent examples.

However, the report also cites research indicating that consumers lower their expectations for flavor when they see terms like “low-fat” on menus, and fewer diners tend to choose those options. Also, ERS researchers have found that consumers pay less attention to nutrition information at restaurants than they do when shopping for groceries, and even dieters tend to choose less healthy options when dining out.

The impact on different dining formats and different demographics may also vary. New York City has had a calorie labeling law in effect since July 2008. A New York University study analyzed how the new calorie information impacted purchasing habits at fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority neighborhoods. While 88% of study participants said that they purchased fewer calories in response to the labeling, receipts indicated that they still consumed the same number of calories as a control group in Newark, N.J.

By contrast, a Stanford University study comparing sales at Starbucks locations in New York with sales in Boston and Philadelphia found that mandatory calorie posting caused average calories per order to fall by 6%.