The Skinny on Menu Labeling

The Skinny on Menu Labeling

Food & Drink

The Skinny on Menu Labeling

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Theoretically, menu labeling laws should help us be more aware of the nutritional value of foods we eat. And one could surmise that consumers would use that information to alter their purchase behaviors when dining away from home. However, according to this week’s Wall Street Journal Health blog, that may not be the case.

The blog reports that researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and the Seattle Public Health Department published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that compares patrons’ eating habits in 2 different Seattle-area counties. They observed ordering behavior in Taco Time locations in both counties – one which has menu labeling regulations on the books, the other does not. What researchers found was no significant difference in the amount of calories typically consumed by those who had nutritional data available when ordering.

Not surprising results for those who regularly follow our sister website foodchannel.com. In this year’s Top Trends for 2011, Editor Kay Logsdon highlights a trend she calls “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which speaks to the ambivalence some patrons face when it comes to nutritional data. We may say we want to know, but, in reality might not do anything differently. Or we may be embarrassed by eating in a way some might consider schizophrenic. A salad with light dressing on the side, a diet Coke and a candy bar. But in reality, that’s the way a majority of Americans eat – balancing better-for-you items with things that don’t fit that bill. The consumer behavioral experts at CultureWaves call this Flexible Flux. That’s when we rationalize decisions and counterbalance to allow a mixture of good with the bad in our diets, with it all balancing out (in our own minds) in the end.

Confusion, on the consumer’s part, is only fueled by the plethora of nutritional information available, from a variety of sources, which can sometimes seem in conflict. Even if we do want to eat healthier, we don’t know where to start. Several restaurant chains are working to make that process easier by offering nutritional data via their websites.

Potbelly Sandwich Shop, which has stores in the upper Midwest, mid-east coast and Texas, offers website visitors a simple, intuitive interface they can use to find nutritional data on the sandwiches they serve. By entering the type of sandwich and indicating bread, meat, topping and condiment options, nutritional information updates automatically and provides patrons with the ability to understand how their choices impact calories, sodium, fat, and so forth. The chain also has fun with its healthier options and recently introduced a new “skinny” sandwich called the “Little Tuna.” The sandwiches feature 25 percent less fat than the original version.

Burger King offers a similar setup on its website, where visitors can select menu items which they can then customize with the click of a mouse. McDonald’s offers PDFs for download, which contain nutritional data, but not in the interactive format. The nutritionals tab on the Arby’s website is loaded with nutrition facts and numbers; however, the depth of information provided can seem overwhelming. That’s the risk we run with nutritional information overload, it leads to inaction from not knowing where to start. But regardless of whether it’s a simple interface or a lengthy printable document, it’s not going away.

With government regulation and a seemingly endless news cycle on the obesity challenges we face in America, this discussion is only getting started. This trend toward understanding how foods impact our bodies will continue, but the real question is whether we’ll alter our behavior based on that understanding.

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