Lead author Julie Downs of Carnegie Mellon University's Dietrich College Humanities and Social Sciences and colleagues put menu labels to the test by investigating whether providing diners with recommended calorie intake information along with the menu items caloric content would improve their food choices.
Downs and the research team analyzed the purchase behaviors of 1,121 U.S. adult lunchtime diners at two McDonald's restaurants in New York City.
To explore the potential interaction between pre-existing menu labeling and the addition of recommended calorie intake information, three groups of diners received different information: (1) recommended daily calorie intake; (2) recommended per-meal calorie intake; and (3) no additional information.
Survey data also was gathered to capture the diners' understanding of calorie consumption.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed no interaction between the use of calorie recommendations and the pre-existing menu labels, suggesting incorporating calorie recommendations did not help customers make better use of the information provided on calorie-labeled menus.
Further, providing calorie recommendations, whether calories per-day or per-meal, did not show a reduction in the number of calories purchased.
"People who count calories know this is a pretty labor-intensive exercise," Downs said in a statement. "Making the information available on menus may have other beneficial effects, such as motivating restaurants to change their formulations. But it may be unrealistic to expect many consumers to keep such close, numeric track of their food intake by using the labels directly."