Research suggests new nutritional information on menu boards has nominal impact

March 22, 2011 by Dave Haynes

US government regulations passed last year, that require fast casual restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to start posting nutritional information on menus and menu boards, was expected to be a catalyst for growth in the digital menu board sector.

The theory was that this information changes as offers change, and digital was a way to deal with that efficiently. That’s still the case, and we certainly hear a fair amount of chatter about strong activity in the menu board sector.

But there is some interesting new research out that suggests giving consumers calorie counts doesn’t have much influence on how they order.

The research from The NPD Group suggests the requirements effective this summer won’t have much of a long-term impact on ordering habits.

Reports MediaPost:

NPD conducted a study among adults as part of research for a report, “Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat.” Consumers were shown a typical burger menu without and then with the calories posted, and asked to indicate which items they would order. With calories shown, consumers ordered items that amounted to fewer calories, but the difference in calories was relatively small. The average number of calories ordered when calories were posted was 901, compared to 1,021 when calories were not posted.

The study also found that, on average, consumers ordered about the same number of items when calories were posted (3.2) as when calories weren’t posted (3.3).

Consumers seeing calories on menus did cause a decrease in the order of foods that were already declining in terms of restaurant servings, such as French fries, carbonated soft drinks, one-third-pound hamburgers, shakes and smoothies, onion rings and some chicken sandwiches. On the other hand, the calorie postings increased orders for other foods, such as regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers, diet soft drinks, salads without dressing and grilled chicken wraps.

Calorie posting also slightly reduced average lunch and dinner check sizes. The average order with calorie postings was $6.20, versus $6.40 for no calories shown. This could be the results of ordering smaller portion sizes of French fries or other items, noted Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant analyst and author of the report.

NPD’s research shows that quality — meaning “fresh, natural and nutritious” — rather than calorie counts, is the most important attribute to people looking for healthier options when they eat out, according to Riggs.

“The takeaway for restaurant chains is that, in the short term, we expect consumers may react to calorie labeling with some shift in foods/beverages ordered, but expect that old behaviors will return in time,” she says. “Operators may want to plan for some initial shift in product mix when the new menus are presented to consumers. Lower-calorie sides might be highlighted or promoted when the menu change is made, which could assist in keeping order sizes and check sizes up.”

So what does this mean for QSR people with digital menu boards? It depends, I suppose.

It’s good news if you run a business that wants diners up-sizing on orders. But if healthy eating is where the margins are, then probably a little more emphasis on what the numbers mean might be needed in the content.


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