Data Driven: Menu Calorie Labeling and its (Missed) Opportunities

Last month I sat down for lunch at a midwestern diner chain and asked the server what items were popular. She rattled off a couple of dishes, among them a seafood platter. It sounded tasty if a bit heavy, but then I was shocked to see listed on the menu that this platter would run me between 2,130-2870 calories! No thank you—another equally enticing dinner platter had a full 1,200 calories less!

Politico reported that in early May the FDA had delayed the implementation of a rule requiring restaurants and other food vendors to list that caloric content of items on their menu. This delay drew attention because it came just four days before the rule would go into effect, meaning that businesses had already invested time and resources into ensuring compliance.  While there was widespread agreement among those interviewed that an unstable regulatory environment is bad for business, there are broader-ranging views on whether requiring restaurants to list caloric content is worth the trouble. I argue, based on the emerging research on food choice decision-making, that calorie labeling on menus is important for creating a decision architecture that empowers consumers and encourages competitive innovation, both of which result in a benefit for population health.

Empowers consumers

Most U.S. consumers use product attributes such as cost, taste, and convenience as primary dimensions by which they compare foods and ultimately choose what to buy and eat. One thing these attributes have in common is that people can easily and immediately understand how pricey, tasty, or convenient a food is during that dining experience. Because these attributes can be so motivating, some researchers of marketing and decision-making have called them search attributes. But there are other dimensions that are relevant to consumers’ food choice—called credence attributes—which are not immediately, experientially obvious. The nutrient profile of a food is one of these credence attributes. Unfortunately for consumers, these hidden attributes are not incorporated into our mental food-choice calculus unless they are made visible in some way. As Daniel Kahneman is fond of saying in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “What you see is all there is.”

The impact of this tendency of human thinking is that people often make decisions without taking into account all of the relevant information. In the aforementioned Politico article, the author Helena Bottemiller Evich gives a scenario in which a convenient store pizza sells for only $1 per slice. While the search attributes of convenience, cost, and to an extent taste initially paint an appealing picture, the mental calculation is incomplete until you also realize that each slice contains between 560-620 calories. This data point may make the pizza not so appealing for some consumers, and a reasonable intake for others based on their goals and lifestyles.

Of course, I’m glossing over the complex ways in which individuals are more or less likely to seek out nutrient information based on their values and knowledge. But the basic premise holds true: consumers are most empowered to make their best choice when they are given access to credence attributes through techniques like caloric labeling. This happened for me when I used caloric labeling to avoid the seafood platter.

Encourages competitive innovation

In the diverse food marketplace, it’s no secret that some food companies are better poised to benefit from menus displaying calorie information, namely those whose brands are associated with being healthy, natural and fresh. Bottemiller Evich points out that Panera Bread has been voluntarily displaying calorie information on its menus since 2010. How much better for them if competitors are forced to do the same? Surely Panera Bread is betting that the more salient health and nutrition become to the consumer, the more likely those consumers will be to seek out Panera above its competitors.

This description may raise the hackles of free-market true believers, since requiring calorie labeling for foods might appear to push consumers towards healthier products and doom some restaurants in the process. But this regulation does not pick winners and losers. Instead, it amplifies existing pressures in the marketplace to provide a healthier product. Consumer sensibilities do evolve over time, and the most successful companies adjust to that evolution. Take McDonald’s Corporation for example. News articles from 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016 have detailed McDonald’s efforts to keep their menu relevant and appealing to consumers by moving towards healthier items or reformulating existing items. Even as they do this, fast-casual competitors who emphasize higher-quality ingredients and fresher options pull away more market-share. Calorie labeling increases the salience of healthy eating and is likely to speed food consumers’ drift towards a health-orientation.

Benefit for population health

Calorie labeling can empower consumers to make fully-informed decisions and calculate the true value of a food purchase. As markets react to these developing consumer trends towards health, they work to make their foods more attractive by delivering what consumers want. It is a data-driven decision ecosystem on full display. Now, the delay of the labeling rule means that the public will have to continue waiting for this systemic change to build momentum. In the meantime, we’ll all have to take greater individual initiative to make informed decisions about our caloric choices.


Dr. Andrew Menger-Ogle is a psychologist who has a researched the influence of food labeling and marketing on decision-making.  He currently provides methodological and analytical expertise at C H Smith & Associates, LLC.

Data Driven is a series of blog posts by C H Smith & Associates to focus on the use of data for everyday decision-making.


About Andrew Menger-Ogle, PhD

Dr. Andrew Menger-Ogle is Research and Evaluation Associate at C H Smith & Associates, LLC. Andrew currently provides methodological and analytical expertise for program evaluations.
This entry was posted in Community Engagement, Data Driven-Decision making, Nutrition, Program Evaluation, Public Health and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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