Ohio State Study: Providing Nutrition Information at Restaurants Helps Consumers Cut Calories
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An Ohio State University study provides more evidence that consumers pay attention to calorie counts of meals when they are provided conveniently.
The study collected data about choices consumers made among 12 entrees offered at a university dining center that operates much like a fast-food restaurant. Researchers found that when nutrition information was provided at the point-of-purchase, sales of high-calorie entrees dramatically decreased, while sales of lower-calorie items substantially increased. After the nutrition information was removed, sales of the higher-calorie items gradually increased again.
The study offers strong evidence for requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information in a manner that doesn't require consumers to ask for it or look for it, said Gail Kaye, one of the study's authors. Significantly, the restaurant lost nothing in sales during the study, Kaye said. The revenue per entree sold remained consistent before, during and after the nutrition information was offered. This finding could help reduce qualms of restaurants hesitant to offer calorie information to consumers for fear that sales would decrease, but Kaye, a program director with Ohio State University Extension and the Department of Human Nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology, is even more interested in the calorie savings for consumers.
"The average decrease in calories in the entrees chosen was small, about 12 calories on the first day and increasing gradually through the two-week study period, but the decrease was immediate when nutrition information was available," Kaye said. "Even more dramatic was the difference in the numbers of higher- and lower-calorie entrees sold before calorie counts were available." Of the 12 entrees tracked, the six highest-calorie entrees all decreased in sales between the two weeks before nutrition information was available and the two weeks during the study when it was available. The highest-calorie entree (839 calories) lost the most sales -- a decrease of 190, or 5.4 percent; an entree offering 735 calories lost the most ground percentage-wise, decreasing by 80 sales, or by 25 percent. All of the six lower-calories entrees increased in sales, with a mid-range offering containing 492 calories increasing in number by 289, or 8.2 percent. The lowest-calorie entree, with 412 calories, increased in sales by 108, or by 50 percent.
To conduct the study, researchers initially collected sales data on the 12 entrees for two weeks. The only information offered to consumers was a description of each entree. During the next two weeks, posters with simplified nutrition labels for each of the 12 entrees were posted at the point of selection; information included total calories, serving size, and amount of fat, protein and carbohydrates in each entree. In addition, a space divider guided patrons in a manner so they could view the information and menu board easily. After a 14-day period, the nutrition information was removed and descriptions of the entrees were again offered, this time on a sheet of paper in a floor stand, as was typical practice at the restaurant before the study began. The restaurant made no modifications to the recipes during the study, but afterwards, it reformulated its highest-calorie offering to reduce the calorie content by 172 calories, to 667 calories. The change is substantial, the researchers said: An extra 172 calories a day can cause an increase of 11 pounds of body weight over the course of an academic year.
Interest in the effect of posting calorie information on restaurant menus and menu boards increased in 2008 when the New York City Board of Health began requiring the information, at least for chain restaurants. Currently, the federal government is considering enacting similar legislation nationwide. New regulations could make a significant difference in the nation's obesity rate, Kaye said. In 2007, Americans spent $555.7 billion on meals prepared away from home, compared with $331.8 billion in 1997.
The study, "Improving Patrons' Meal Selections Through the Use of Point-of-Selection Nutrition Labels," was published in the November 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Lead author was Yong H. Chu, who was Kaye's undergraduate student at Ohio State during the time of the study; he is now with the University of South Carolina, Columbia, as are co-authors Edward A. Frongillo and Sonya J. Jones.
Gail Kaye, Human Nutrition