Mandatory menu labeling may not influence eating habits

January 21, 2011

A study published in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine shows that the menu labeling law may not impact consumer behavior. As part of a comprehensive effort to stem the rise in obesity, King County, Wash., enforced a mandatory menu-labeling regulation requiring all restaurant chains with 15 or more locations to disclose calorie information at the point of purchase beginning in January 2009.

In this study, the researchers looked at what people ordered at 14 Taco Times restaurants. Seven of the restaurants were in King County, which had to post calorie, saturated fat, carbohydrate, and sodium information for consumers. The other seven Taco Times were outside of King County and didn’t have to change their menu boards. Researchers used a one-year baseline of sales data before the law went into effect in January of 2009 and compared it with a 13-month span afterward.

The researchers found no statistically significant difference in food-purchasing behavior before and after the law took effect. For both the King County and non-county groups, the passage of the law had no effect on the total number of sales and average number of calories per transaction.

“Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small, but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation,” said lead author Eric Finkelstein, Associate Professor of Health Services at Duke-NUS. “The results suggest that mandatory menu labeling, unless combined with other interventions, may be unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic.”

As part of healthcare reform, the federal government has plans for a nationwide launch of mandatory nutrition information at the point of purchase for fast-food chains with 20 or more outlets.

Finkelstein said that the lack of effects at Taco Times may be because the restaurant was already identifying the healthier options via “Healthy Highlights” logos on the menu board before the legislation went into effect. “A simple logo identifying which foods are healthiest may be all it takes to convey that information to those consumers who wish to choose a healthier alternative,” said Finkelstein. “The additional information appears not to have made a difference.”

Abstract

Duke press release