Thursday, August 14, 2014

Has Menu Labeling Had an Impact on TV Ads?

   There is a lot of opinion and a little bit of science for and against the (conspicuously absent) national menu labeling law.  In case you have forgotten - it has been 4 years - the law requires restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to post calorie information for all standard items at the point of decision making/purchase (i.e., the menu board or menu).  If you have not been following the issue with me, let me state up front that I am a proponent of nutrition disclosures, especially calorie amounts, at all places where food and beverages are sold.  I believe that the information helps certain consumers and harms none.
   What I take away from the many research studies (Krieger & Saelens, 2013; Liu, 2013; Sinclair, Cooper, & Mansfield, 2014; Wei & Miao, 2013) that have tested local laws (and field/lab experiments) is: 1) for some people, the information is helpful and leads them to choose lower calorie options, while others either don’t see the information, don’t know what to do with it (when calorie disclosures come within a context, the information is more meaningful), or see it and actually choose higher calorie meals, and 2) some researchers are assessing whether menu labeling has an impact on weight or BMI, which is a long term goal and not necessarily the primary goal of calorie disclosures.
   What is of greater and more immediate interest to me is 1) whether or not consumer attitudes about and understanding of calories change after the introduction of calorie information and 2) whether or not the items available to purchase become lower in calories.  If you are interested in a good over view of calorie content in major restaurant items circa 2010, see this article by Wu (Wu & Sturm, 2013).
    On that last note - do restaurant owners change their behavior - I have something promising to report.  I have seen at least 3 TV commercials from different restaurants that post the calorie content, out loud, in a caption or both.  For example, McDonald’s states that its egg McMuffin has 300 calories in this TV ad, and Dunkin Donuts promotes a less than 300 calorie breakfast flat bread here.  I am pretty sure that I have seen a Taco Bell ad showing calorie content as well.  This is something new and though I don’t have evidence to back my assertion, it is possible that the state and local laws, along with the national labeling expectations and all this talk about calories, is leading consumers to expect the information and companies to provide it - and in so doing, the restaurant owners realize that they might need to offer lower calorie options.  YES, there are still plenty of ridiculous offerings, see the CSPI Xtreme Eating 2014, but that doesn’t negate the positive.
    Block and Roberto (Block & Roberto, 2014) encourage us to look for myriad positive outcomes of menu labeling as we continue to study the impact of such laws, I think they are right, and I add these commercials to the examples they provided in their recent publication (free on line).

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