Read Menu Labels, Make the Right Choices

Restaurant menu labels listing calorie counts resulted in fewer calories consumed

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Americans consume 400 additional calories everyday compared to their consumption in the year 1970, contributing to today’s obesity epidemic. Will menu labeling come to the rescue? Maybe, says a new study.

Menu labeling regulations that require restaurants to publish calorie counts on their menus have been adopted by many food joints across the country. Soon, every large chain restaurant will be required to comply. 

A new study has found that including calorie counts on menus helped reduce the calories consumed by customers, albeit by a small amount.

"Read restaurant menu labels before you order."

The study was conducted by James W. Krieger, MD, MPH, from Public Health Department of Seattle and King County, Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Section in collaboration with researchers from the Assessment, Policy Development and Evaluation Unit at the University of Washington & Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute.

The main objective of the study was to examine how menu labeling in restaurants influences the number of calories purchased by consumers. 

The researchers studied 50 random sites of 10 chain restaurants including burger restaurants, sandwich places and coffee shops in King County, Washington. Pizza restaurants were excluded because most customers order by telephone and do not see the menu board.

A total of 7,325 customers – 59 percent male, 76 percent white and 53 percent aged less than 40 years – were included in the study.

The interviewers visited restaurants daily between specific hours and collected receipts before administering a brief survey about nutrition awareness and use of menu labels, familiarity with daily caloric needs and details of purchases made.

The study began before regulations were implemented and continued for 18 months after implementation of the new regulations directing restaurants to publish calorie information on their menus. According to the authors, this period is considerably longer than previously published studies.

Calories per purchase at certain chain restaurants, especially taco places and coffee shops, decreased 18 months after the new regulations were implemented, though no apparent change was observed in the first six months of follow-up.

After 18 months, mean calories per purchase decreased by 22 calories in coffee chains and by 38 calories in food chains.

No significant change was seen in burger restaurants, a finding attributed to the limited ability to customize orders at burger joints.

Awareness of caloric values for foods increased as well.

The researchers noted that asking customers to save their receipts may have influenced their purchases. Also, caloric listings alone may not have been completely responsible for the reduction in caloric intakes. Other factors such as marketing promotions, price changes and menu item changes may have influenced study results as well.

The daily caloric intake of participants was not taken into account, which in turn meant that there was no data available to show they did not compensate for reduced caloric intake at restaurants by consuming more calories elsewhere.

Limitations aside, it must be underlined that the study did demonstrate a reduction in caloric intake among restaurant patrons following menu labeling. Reduction in intake alone will not help solve the obesity epidemic, but given that 130 million people eat out in the US every day, it is a step in the right direction.

As lead author Dr. Krieger said, “Menu labeling is but one piece of the complex obesity pie. It’s not the single intervention, but one of several intersecting, overlapping strategies that encourage us to eat healthier foods and be physically active.”

The study was published in the June issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

This study was funded by grants from the Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. None of the authors reported potential conflicts of interest, including financial interest, activities, relationships or affiliations.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 17, 2013
Last Updated:
September 17, 2013