Restaurant Briefing: Nutrition — The Need to Know
In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. Among its sweeping provisions was a mandate that restaurant chains with 20+ units display calorie information for menu items. By the time FDA rulemaking made the mandate a reality in late 2014, most chains and many independent restaurants had long since begun listing nutrition information.
Before the ACA, fewer than half of consumers said they had noticed nutrition data in restaurants (though posting was already a widespread practice). But by now, two-thirds say they’re aware of calorie and other nutrition data offered on menus and menu boards.
What do diners do about this information? Plenty of polls and scientific studies have tried to determine the answer, but results have been mixed to say the least.
In 2009—when fewer than half of respondents had even noticed nutrition information in restaurants—only half of those who did take note of the data reported acting on it. By 2012, three-quarters of those polled were saying that the data had an impact. But the proportion has declined since then, to about two-thirds today. As nutrition postings in restaurants become standard, they may become invisible except to those who take an interest. Or maybe some consumers are suffering from health information fatigue.
Where Diners Get Data—and What They Look For
Today’s consumers have many avenues to access nutrition data. The majority have taken notice of numbers on the menu board at limited-service restaurants, and many have checked out such data on the menu handed to them at a full-service restaurant. Others have looked at info via a special menu, menu board or list. It’s also common to access nutrition data on a restaurant’s website or mobile site, or even on a third-party site such as Healthydiningfinder.com.
Almost nine out of 10 consumers say they’ve seen calorie postings for menu items in restaurants, but just half say they’ve ever noticed numbers given for the total fat in menu items, and only a third recall seeing data on saturated fat, sodium, carbs or whether items are heart-healthy.
Are diners’ needs being met? What nutrition information, exactly, would they like to see? More than seven out of 10 say they would check out sodium content, saturated fat and total fat, if available; about the same proportion are hunting for a “heart-healthy” icon or label. Next come calories, carbs and fiber content.
Nutrition By the Numbers: What Consumers Are Looking For
When we invited consumers to list other nutrition issues they would like to know about, the words that came up most frequently were sugars, protein levels, and information about genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.
What They’d Do If They Knew
We’ve seen that about two-thirds of diners who have taken note of nutrition information available in restaurants report having been influenced to change their order as a result. Some of the ways consumers say they might adjust an order:
Consumers were asked how they might respond if a restaurant paired its nutrition numbers with suggestions on choosing a healthier meal. There was widespread enthusiasm for the amenity: eight out of 10 said it would be helpful, and among those, five out of 10 said it would be very helpful. Most of the rest were neutral about the idea; only 2% said they would find suggestions for alternative menu choices unhelpful or offensive.
Mandated Nutrition Labeling
Let’s end by returning to the idea of government-mandated nutrition labeling as a way to get Americans to eat healthier. Consumers—the subject of the experiment—are evenly split on the idea. While 46% say mandated nutrition labeling is a good plan that will help diners select healthier restaurant foods, another 46% say it might be a good idea in theory but won’t really change how diners order. The rest argue that restaurants should be free to choose whether or not to list nutrition info or that consumers have a right to either choose or avoid restaurants that offer such data.
Bottom line: Most consumers today are interested in seeing nutrition information in restaurants and are willing to act on it, at least sometimes. What’s more, they call for more data and more help in making menu choices than they are currently being given.
Data was collected and analyzed by Technomic Inc., based on a nationally representative survey of 500 consumers conducted by internet in February 2015. If you have questions, comments or topic suggestions, please contact Laura McGuire at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at (312) 506-3834