You have probably read news stories suggesting that calorie information on restaurant menus and menu boards does not work. It does appear that state or city nutrition menu labeling laws have not had a big impact on the average amount of calories customers purchase. However, I have noted several research studies that are exceptions to these findings and I continue to believe that providing nutrition information at the point of decision making is a good idea. The labeling can help reduce the over consumption of calories that occurs when people eat out. I also believe, based on the research of others (see e.g., Ellison), that using a traffic light presentation (i.e., green, amber or red based on calorie amount) will enhance the effectiveness of menu labeling.
For the most recent scientific review of menu labeling please click here.
Today I want to mention progress on another hoped for outcome related to menu labeling - changing the amount of calories in meals restaurants offer. The FDA still hasn't issued the final rule on how restaurants are to present the information, but in expectation, it would seem, restaurants are promoting special menus that offer lower than 'usual' calorie amounts. (Recall the studies I have cited in past posts which showed the average chain restaurant meal having over 900 calories.)
In my anecdotal review (i.e., I have not systematically studied restaurant menus before and after the legislation was passed, or as the final rule approaches, or controlled for the fact that it is the first of the year), I found at least 9 major chain restaurants (e.g., Apple Bees, Outback, Macaroni Grill, Subway, McAlisters, Long John Silvers, IHOP, TGIF) who are promoting entrees with 500 to 600 calories or less. Subway is advertising breakfast options at 200 or less.
One of the distal (or immediate) outcomes of a menu labeling law is that it heightens peoples awareness of calories and makes calories seem more important. I believe that menu labeling IS effective for these outcomes. The restaurant industry is aware of this and that is why menu labeling laws also work to change what is available - in other words, law can change the environment. Law can have a greater impact on population health than interventions aimed at individuals. I am confident that once the labeling rule is published and restaurants nationwide fulfill their obligations to post calorie information, we will begin to see a change in the amount of calories purchased and in the future, perhaps, a reduction in the prevalence of diseases associated with being over fat.