I want to mention a few things from the study I cite below. Here is the most important one. A conclusion statement in the summary is misleading. The statement, "Posting calorie benchmarks had no direct impact..." implies that the benchmarks were posted on the menu or menu board, but they were not. The study did not assess the effect of posting daily or per meal calorie recommendations (i.e., the benchmarks) ON A MENU. It tested the effect of handing someone a piece of paper with this information on it as they walked into a restaurant. That is a huge difference. The researchers do not try to say otherwise. It is just the one sentence that is wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of people will not read the study to find out the difference. In addition, it is that conclusion that most of the popular press headlines are touting.
This was not a study on whether or not menu labeling works. The study tested the effect of telling someone how many calories they might need in a day and the effect of telling them how many calories they might need in a meal. In other words, would people given either piece of information purchase a lower amount of calories than people not given any information. (This was tested in a situation where calories were listed on menus and in a situation where calories were not listed on menus. That condition did not make a difference.)
The slips of paper they handed the customers did not seem to help. But I caution you not to conclude that the information isn't helpful. There is a big difference in a menu board disclosure and a piece of paper someone hands you. Still, it fuels my argument for something more powerful and less mathy... traffic light labeling.
There was something else I found interesting in this study. The researchers asked the customers how many calories a doctor or nutritionist would recommend that they consume in a day. Both men and women substantially UNDER estimated their own caloric needs, by 200 or 300 calories.. and YET, they ordered enough to far exceed their own estimated daily number.
E.g., a person who thought they needed 1100 calories for a whole day ordered 900 calories for their lunch. Again, too much math. Too much thinking at the point of purchase when other factors, like taste, cost, time, etc are more important. (isn't it crazy that people think they need 1300 to 1600 hundred calories when our packages refer to a 2000 calorie diet AND people tend to actually consume 2000 or more a day - more than most people need)
STILL, the menu item calorie information should be available to every one every where. Consumers have the right to know what they are eating. However, the best chance for changing the number of calories purchased may come when the restaurants start revising their recipes and the calories AVAILABLE to us become fewer. Traffic light labels and lower calorie meals.. that's the ticket :)
(Also, note - the people in this study were all eating at McDonalds.. there might be something about McDonalds customers that is different than other restaurant customers)
Downs, J. S., Wisdom, J., Wansink, B., & Loewenstein, G. (2013). Supplementing menu labeling with calorie recommendations to test for facilitation effects. American Journal of Public Health, e1-e6. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301218