fter years of delays and setbacks, a mandate that all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide provide calorie information on their menus goes into effect Monday. As a result, fast food loyalists and chain restaurant patrons across the country will come face-to-face with the calorie counts for their favorite menu items.
Policymakers hope that calorie labeling will help consumers forego higher-calorie foods in favor of lower-calorie alternatives. This goal is especially important given that more than two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese and we spend close to $150 billion a year on the medical costs of obesity.
Detractors of calorie labeling legislation rightfully point out that most research studies have thus far found little to no effect of calorie information on how many calories consumers are ordering. Not surprisingly, this has led many commentators to call calorie labeling a “failed” policy.
Not so fast. Our research, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that we should not dismiss calorie labeling just yet, and that a trivially simple intervention can considerably increase the impact of calorie labels on consumers’ food orders.
This intervention was borne from a simple observation we made when visiting restaurants that already display calorie counts on their menus. This information is almost always presented to the right of the menu items’ names, like this: House Special Cheeseburger — 870 Calories. Because Americans read from left to right, this means the calorie information is read after the food item’s name.
Drawing on decades of psychological research showing that the first piece of information one reads usually receives disproportionate weight in subsequent decisions, we predicted that calorie information presented this way had little chance to affect food orders. The intuition is that a consumer may already be leaning toward a cheeseburger before getting a chance to consider the calorie information, thus minimizing its effect on what he or she orders.
We tested this by moving the calorie information from the right of the menu item to the left, like this: 870 Calories — House Special Cheeseburger. The effect of this simple adjustment was dramatic.
In one study at a casual chain restaurant on an American college campus, we found that diners who chose from a menu with calorie information displayed to the left of the food items ordered meals with 28.4 percent fewer calories compared to diners who chose from a menu without calorie information. By comparison, diners who chose from a menu with calorie information to the right of each menu item ordered meals with only 5.4 percent fewer calories.
We were able to test whether this effect was really about the order in which consumers read the calorie information in a follow-up study with Hebrew-speaking Israelis, who read from right to left. For them, placing calorie information earlier — on the right — should have greater impact. And it did: They ordered fewer calories when choosing from a menu with calorie information to the right of menu items, rather than the left. This follow-up study provided solid evidence that the order in which calorie information is presented and read has a powerful effect on whether consumers use it to make lower-calorie food choices.
As the nationwide rollout of calorie labeling takes place and the debate concerning calorie labels reignites, we hope that our research informs the discussion. We agree that the effect of calorie labeling on consumer choices has so far been disappointing. But rather than scrapping calorie counts on restaurant menus altogether, we need to find ways to make this information more effective. Our research suggests one simple change that food retailers can adopt.
In the U.S., calorie labels may have a limited effect when presented to the right of menu items, but they may have a considerable effect when presented to the left. Let’s take a step in that direction.
Steven Dallas, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Peggy Liu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of business administration, marketing, and business economics at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. Peter Ubel, M.D., is a physician, behavioral scientist, and professor of business, public policy, and medicine at Duke University.