Too Much Information? – Labeling Restaurant Menus
Information can be a source of learning; but, when there is too much information, or it is not available in a form that can be easily understood and analyzed by the person for whom it is intended, information can be a burden. Or, too much information can simply be ignored in an over-stimulated society. Such seems to be the case when it comes to labeling restaurant menus with nutrition information.
In the last few years, many cities, counties and states have enacted, or considered enacting, legislation requiring that nutrition information be disclosed to consumers at the point of purchase in restaurants. The legislation is aimed at reducing obesity, and decreasing its related public health burden, by providing more information to consumers. But, recent studies evaluating the early effects of these mandates are reporting less than satisfying results.
Most recently, an analysis of mandatory fast-food menu-labeling in King County, Washington reported no change in consumer behavior or food purchasing, compared to pre-labeling legislation. Overall, the number of transactions and calories per transaction did not vary between control and intervention locations before or after the legislation was enacted.
Similarly, in New York City, food selection was analyzed before and after enforcement of fast-food menu labeling began. In this case, 64% of restaurant-goers reported seeing the nutrition information. Among people who saw the information, only 27% reported using the information to make a different food choice. However, this did result in a 2-fold increase in the number of patrons making nutrition-informed choices.
Also in Washington state, full service restaurants in Pierce County added nutrition information to their menus. In this case, a small impact was seen in food purchases: overall, each post-labeling entrée contained 15 fewer calories, 1.5 fewer fat grams, and 45 fewer milligrams of sodium on average than pre-labeling entrees. In total, 71% of restaurant-goers noticed the information on the menu; but only 20% used this information to choose a lower-calorie option, while 16% chose a lower-fat option. Among a small subset of restaurant patrons, nutrition information may impact food choices, but the requirements are, so far, lacking the robust outcomes for which supporters of the legislation hoped.
In New York City alone, more than 1 million people see nutrition information every day in restaurants now. Once menu-labeling is more widespread, or has been in place for a while, will people continue to notice it? Or, will it fade into the background with the rest of the information-overload today? Many consumers report that nutrition information is important, and support restaurants providing it, but few people are actually willing to use the information for their own food choices. People who want a salad still order a salad, and those who want a hamburger still order a hamburger. If only a small subset of people use the nutrition information to alter behavior, is the intervention worthwhile?
There is no doubt or argument that obesity is a public health crisis demanding education and attention. But, obesity is also profitable, since consumers demand lower-cost, convenient food choices, which are usually less nutritious, along with drugs, devices and quick-fix diets that manage the health consequences of such consumption. Only time will tell if the results of menu-labeling legislation should be savored, or if this is one more failed attempt to curb America’s appetite for labor-saving, affordable food.
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Finkelstein EA, Strombotne KL, Chan NL, & Krieger J (2011). Mandatory menu labeling in one fast-food chain in King County, Washington. American journal of preventive medicine, 40 (2), 122-7 PMID: 21238859
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