I read an interesting study today. It was a menu labeling experiment that involved the recruitment of almost 500 people aged 16 and over. The people who were in the study had to be the type who regularly (at least once a week) ate at a fast food restaurant (like McDonalds or Burger King).
For the experiment, people were divided (by random assignment) into four conditions or groups. The differences were the type of menus they ordered from. In each condition, they chose a meal (sandwich, fries, drink etc) that they were told they would pay for at the end of the night. The researchers went to the nearby McDonalds and picked up the selected meal. After the dinner, the uneaten food was collected (plate waste) and weighed to determine how much of the calories "ordered" were actually eaten.
The study also included a survey and an interview - after the meal was eaten. The participants were told the nature of the study when it was over and that they did not have to pay for their meal.
The menu conditions included a menu that had the items and their prices only (but the prices were changed so that no value pricing was applied), one that had item, price (modified) and calorie per item, one that had item, calories and price (with the value pricing included), and one that was regular (the items and the prices only with the bigger items being less expensive per ounce (i.e. a value)).
Two big results that I wanted to mention. Overall, there were not differences in the outcomes. Most everyone chose meals that were over 800 calories in total and ate about 700 calories of the total. In the survey, they asked each person which they placed the most importance on when choosing a fast food item; "cost", "convenience", "price" or "nutrition". The least important feature was nutrition.
The researchers discussed the strengths and limits of their study but they left out one very big consideration. The people in the study were fast food regulars. I would expect that they ordered the food that they are accustomed to eating - they weren't looking at the other attributes. Second, when YOU go to a fast food restaurant is it for a nutritious meal? I think not. You go because those french fries or that Big Mac tastes the way you think it will and doesn't cost too much money.
Do I still think calorie labeling is important? Indeed I do, especially at sit down or table restaurants.
The experiment was very interesting and I learned a lot from reading it. The lead author was Lisa Harnack from the University of Minnesota.