_Calorie Counters

Diners order foods with fewer calories when the menu includes nutritional labels, researchers found.


Mandatory menu labeling laws were created to help citizens make healthier dietary choices, but do they work?

It appears they might, at least in full-service restaurants, according to a new study by an evaluation team led by School of Public Health Assistant Professor Amy Auchincloss. The study demonstrates that customers of full-service restaurants with nutritional labeling on the menu select meals with fewer calories.

“This is the first field-based study of mandatory menu labeling laws that found a large overall adjusted difference in calories between customers who dined at labeled restaurants when compared to unlabeled restaurants,” says Auchincloss.  

Almost 80 percent of customers at labeled restaurants reported seeing labels, and 34 percent reported using them when deciding what to order. Among the subset of people who reported they used labels, they purchased 400 fewer calories, 370 milligrams less sodium and 10 grams less saturated fat than the overall average.

In the study led by Auchincloss, customers at restaurants with menu labels purchased, on average, food with:
fewer calories
224 mg
less sodium
3.7 g
less saturated fat

Nevertheless, even consumers who used the labels purchased oversized meals that, on average, far exceeded what could be considered “healthy” — highlighting the pitfalls for consumers when dining out. In the article about the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the authors argue for a need to do more to help consumers to eat sensibly. 

Americans currently purchase at least a third of the calories they consume on food prepared away from home. 

“While previous studies have shown mixed impacts of menu labeling in fast food settings, this study suggests that nutrition information may be particularly useful in full-service restaurants,” said Donald F. Schwarz, MD, health commissioner for the City of Philadelphia and a co-author of the study.

Philadelphia’s menu labeling law was enacted in 2010. Menu labeling will expand nationwide when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. The law requires all fast-food and full-service restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to provide nutrition information at the point of purchase.