Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Impact of Restaurant Calorie Labels on Food Choice: Results from a Field Experiment

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Impact of Restaurant Calorie Labels on Food Choice: Results from a Field Experiment

Article excerpt


In 2009, Americans spent 42% of their food dollars on meals away from home (Morrison, Mancino, and Variyam 2011). Consumers choose to eat outside the home for a variety of reasons, but there is mounting concern that this spending pattern will have a detrimental effect on Americans' diet and overall health. Todd, Mancino, and Lin (2010) estimated that for each additional meal eaten away from home, consumers ate an additional 134 calories. By their estimation, the average person will gain two pounds each year just by eating out one meal a week. Not only does food away from home tend to be higher in calories, its nutrient quality pales in comparison to meals prepared in the home (Todd, Mancino, and Lin 2010).

The combined increases in eating away from home and U.S. obesity/overweight rates have caught the attention of policymakers. In an effort to help promote healthier food choices, several cities, counties, and states have passed or are considering legislation which would require nutrition labeling on restaurant menus (CSPI 2010). With the passage of the 2010 healthcare bill, a standardized menu labeling system will soon be required in chain restaurants and vending machines across the country. The labeling guidelines currently being set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will take precedence over local labeling laws. Although the specific guidelines have not been released (they were expected to be released by the end of 2011 but have still not been finalized to date), it is probable that chain restaurants (those with 20 or more outlets) will be required to provide: (1) calorie information for all menu items on all menus, menu boards, food tags, and drive-throughs, (2) additional nutrition information for all menu items available upon request, and (3) a statement of the recommended daily caloric intake (2,000 calories/day) for the average individual. However, vending machines will only be required to post calorie counts for all items (FDA 2011).

While the literature on menu labeling in restaurants is growing, large gaps in knowledge remain. This research was designed to fill many of these gaps by explicitly calculating the value of information (VOI) present in two types of calorie labels using data collected from a field experiment in which restaurant diners were unaware of the ongoing study. The innovativeness of our approach can be seen by briefly surveying the existing literature on the topic.

Past research on the effectiveness of nutrition labeling has been remarkably inconclusive, both in grocery store (see Moorman, Ferraro, and Huber 2012 for a discussion) and restaurant settings. Some studies concluded that providing nutritional information on restaurant menus lowers caloric intake (e.g., Milich, Anderson, and Mills 1976; Roberto et al. 2010; Wisdom, Downs, and Loewenstein 2010). Yet, other studies found that the information has no effect (e.g., Elbel et al. 2009; Finkelstein et al. 2011; Harnack et al. 2008; Mayer et al. 1987; Schwartz et al. 2012). Even among studies finding an effect, the size of the effect tended to be small. For example, Balfour et al. (1996) and Yamamoto et al. (2005) found that only a small proportion of consumers (16% and 29%, respectively) changed their menu item selection when presented with nutrition information. Importantly, no previous studies have provided an estimate of the economic value of nutritional information on restaurant menus which could be used in a cost-benefit analysis.

One of the primary weaknesses of previous research relates to external validity. In particular, many of the previous studies were conducted in artificial settings where participants were aware of the on-going research. The earliest studies on restaurant menu labeling were not actually conducted in restaurants but in laboratory or cafeteria settings (Balfour et al. 1996; Cinciripini 1984; Harnack et al. 2008; Mayer et al. 1987; Milich, Anderson, and Mills 1976; Roberto et al. …

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