foodIf you knew how many calories were in your next drink or meal, would you make any changes to your selections? Have you made changes already to your menu choices in lieu of healthier alternatives? Do you agree that an informed decision is a powerful one?
In many cities across the nation, restaurants and coffee bars already list calories and fat content on their menus. However, a recent study done at Carnegie Mellon says that it may not make a difference. To make this determination, they analyzed the purchase behaviors of 1,121 adult lunchtime diners at two McDonald's restaurants in New York City. Three groups of diners each received different information: recommended daily calorie intake; recommended per-meal calorie intake; or no additional information. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that providing customers with recommended calorie intake information did not change consumers' menu selections.
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Now, let us take a moment to consider one factor before making our own conclusions. This research studied consumers who had chosen to purchase their lunch at McDonald's. While the chain has certainly been making an effort to add some healthier options to its selections, can we not assume that McDonald's consumers (myself included) are fairly well aware of what is served here before they even walk through the door or hit the drive-thru? Would it not have been more accurate to do this study at a restaurant where the nutritional information might be a bit more, shall we say, surprising?
With all due respect to the brilliant minds at Carnegie Mellon, this does little to convince me that providing consumers with nutritional data has little effect on their menu selections. After all, when Starbucks began showing their nutrition data at their New York City locations several years ago, I happily (and gratefully) changed my regular order to something a bit lower in calories. Then there is the immense popularity of the incredibly popular series of books, articles, and TV segments of Eat This, Not That!, which has made creator David Zinzencko a household name. And what about the onslaught of calorie counters and tracking apps? Does that alone not provide the necessary clues that people are clamoring to be more informed?
We should also keep in mind the possibility that the nutrition data provided in the study may have caused subconscious decisions to be made later. Another study released this year also from Carnegie Mellon found that getting distracted mid-thought helps us to make better decisions later on. So maybe, just maybe, the distraction of seeing nutritional data subconsciously encourages consumers to make a better decision the next time they walk into the restaurant, or perhaps even leads them the next time around to choose another restaurant altogether.
Calorie labeling has been a hot topic lately both in the government and in several individual states. Clearly more research is needed to determine whether, in fact, providing nutritional information guides consumers to feel empowered when making menu selections. The bottom line is that no matter how much we provide people with data, they are completely free to make their own decisions. Yet providing consumers with the ability to make an informed decision is substantially more helpful (at least in my opinion) than giving them no information at all. And when it comes to influencing people to make healthier decisions, or restaurants to serve healthier alternatives, an informed consumer is an immensely powerful one.
-By Jessica Cohen
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