We all like to eat out. Nearly half of all food dollars go to food prepared outside the home. From fine dining to fast food to takeout, we spend a lot of money eating out. Americans’ prodigious restaurant habit has fattened the coffers of dining establishments in addition to our waistlines. Some people see a connection between the two trends. They believe that displaying the calories of each menu item will convince us to pick the leaner foods. Consumer activists contend that putting nutrition facts on menus—like packaged food—will persuade Americans to buy away-from-home foods with more nutrients per calorie.
I am not convinced that the obesity crisis will be overcome with restaurant menu labeling. After all, we have gone from 56% of the population being classified as overweight or obese from 1988 to 1994, when nutrition labeling on packaged foods was implemented, to 67% today. So, whatever else it did, labeling did not solve the obesity crisis.
Should we expect that restaurant labeling will have the opposite effect? Despite the number of dollars spent at restaurants, only one out of four meals is consumed there. Three out of four meals are eaten at home. Can we blithely expect that even the disinterested folks who are calorie-challenged will respond to menu labeling?
The most recent study comes from NYU researchers (International Journal of Obesity) who studied whether teenagers, notably heavy fast-food habitués, were reading the calorie info at restaurants. They found no difference in food choice before and after labeling. After comparing the buying habits of 349 children and adolescents in New York and New Jersey, labels had no effect on their purchases.
Maybe we need a different approach. We can use color-coded symbols to indicate better vs. indulgent choices. We can flag items that are prepared using healthy oils, less sugar, or more fruit and vegetables.
Adding more numbers to our menus is not likely to produce behavioral change. Let’s explore other options.