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Open Access Highly Accessed Research

Looking at the label and beyond: the effects of calorie labels, health consciousness, and demographics on caloric intake in restaurants

Brenna Ellison1*, Jayson L Lusk2 and David Davis3

Author Affiliations

1 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 321 Mumford Hall, 1301 W. Gregory Dr., 61801, Urbana, IL, USA

2 Oklahoma State University, 411 Ag Hall, 74078, Stillwater, OK, USA

3 Oklahoma State University, 210 Human Sciences West, OK, 74078, Stillwater, USA

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2013, 10:21  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-21

Published: 8 February 2013

Abstract

Background

Recent legislation has required calorie labels on restaurant menus as a means of improving Americans’ health. Despite the growing research in this area, no consensus has been reached on the effectiveness of menu labels. This suggests the possibility of heterogeneity in responses to caloric labels across people with different attitudes and demographics. The purpose of this study was to explore the potential relationships between caloric intake and diners’ socio-economic characteristics and attitudes in a restaurant field experiment that systematically varied the caloric information printed on the menus.

Methods

We conducted a field experiment in a full service restaurant where patrons were randomly assigned to one of three menu treatments which varied the amount of caloric information printed on the menus (none, numeric, or symbolic calorie label). At the conclusion of their meals, diners were asked to complete a brief survey regarding their socio-economic characteristics, attitudes, and meal selections. Using regression analysis, we estimated the number of entrée and extra calories ordered by diners as a function of demographic and attitudinal variables. Additionally, irrespective of the menu treatment to which a subject was assigned, our study identified which types of people are likely to be low-, medium-, and high-calorie diners.

Results

Results showed that calorie labels have the greatest impact on those who are least health conscious. Additionally, using a symbolic calorie label can further reduce the caloric intake of even the most health conscious patrons. Finally, calorie labels were more likely to influence the selection of the main entrée as opposed to supplemental items such as drinks and desserts.

Conclusions

If numeric calorie labels are implemented (as currently proposed), they are most likely to influence consumers who are less health conscious – probably one of the key targets of this legislation. Unfortunately, numeric labels did little for those consumers who were already more knowledgeable about health and nutrition. To reach a broader group of diners, a symbolic calorie label may be preferred as it reduced caloric intake across all levels of health consciousness.

Keywords:
Numeric vs. symbolic calorie labeling; Health consciousness; Full service restaurant