Recently, a new Rudd Center study on menu labeling came out in the American Journal of Public Health. For this study, we recruited people from the New Haven community to participate in consumer market research. During the study, people were randomly assigned to receive one of three menus. Some people got a menu with calorie labels on it, some got a menu without calorie labels on it, and the last group got a menu with calorie labels and a label that read: “the average daily caloric intake for an adult is 2000 calories.” Participants then ordered and ate a meal for dinner.
We found that the people in both of the calorie label groups ordered fewer calories and ate less at the dinner meal. But then something interesting happened. We asked our participants to come back the next day and tell us what they had eaten after the study meal. We discovered that the people who had received calorie labels on the menus, and only calorie labels, actually ate a little bit more for snack that night than those who received menus without labels or a menu with labels and the daily caloric intake statement. This meant that when we combined what people ate for dinner with what they ate after dinner, those who had the daily caloric intake statement and calorie labels on their menus ate 250 fewer calories than either of the other groups.
We suspect that people may have felt good about eating fewer calories at dinner so they thought they could reward themselves and eat more when they went home that night. What this study suggests is that putting a statement informing people about daily caloric requirements can maximize the effectiveness of menu labeling.
We are excited about this study because to date research on the impact of menu labeling has yielded mixed results, and unlike other studies, this one measured what people actually ate both during and after the dinner meal. The study design also allowed us to demonstrate a causal relationship between menu labeling and reduced food intake.
Menu labeling makes sense. It informs consumers, promotes better choices, and hopefully will encourage restaurants to reformulate foods.