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The New Nutrition Labels for Fast Food Menus: Who Will Read Them?

The federal government is rolling out mandatory nutrition labeling for fast food menus. But they won't make a difference if they're ignored.

It's no secret that we like eating out. Over the last 40 years, we've been doing it more and more. But when we get our meals outside the kitchen, it's a lot harder to know what's in them—and to determine the exact number of calories in that chicken Caesar salad, veggie burrito, or iced soy chai latte.

The federal government hopes to address the food information gap by rolling out mandatory nutrition labeling for fast food menus and vending machines. Today is the last day to weigh in on the proposed menu labeling. It's a step forward, although health advocates want labels for alcoholic beverages and anything sold at movie theaters, which are currently exempt.

Either way, the big question is whether the government can make a nutrition label we'll actually read. Few of us glance at the current nutrition labels on packaged foods, and new labels won't make a difference if they're similarly ignored. As Nicholas Begley, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told Marketplace's Bob Moon yesterday, "no matter how much information you give people, they still tend to make pretty poor choices pretty consistently."

But how about eaters who are consciously attempting to make better menu choices—those who have lunch at spots that market themselves as health food joints, like Whole Foods Market, Panera Bread, or Subway? These consumers don't always succeed in eating well, but improved nutritional labels could help them understand why.

Without explicit calorie counts, health-conscious eaters are susceptible to the averaging bias, which can make them think that a hamburger lunch is healthier when it comes with a side of broccoli (even though the combination has more calories). And the health halo can make “organic” or “trans-fat free” chips and cookies sound healthier than snacks that don’t make these claims. As Pierre Chandon, a behavior economist at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, told me, "Where people are the most knowledgeable about food, they are the most biased. It’s a paradox. Those people on diets, the ones who pay the most attention, and are the most knowledgeable also tend to be the most influenced by these biases."

So menu labeling might have a more pronounced effect at places claiming to serve healthier foods. In two studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers found that many people still did not pay attention to calorie counts even when posted on menus, but those who did tended to be nutritionally motivated people. "They have this belief that they’re eating healthy and often times, they aren’t," Kevin Bates, a marketing professor at University of San Diego and one of the study's co-authors, told me. "They were absolutely shocked when we told them what they were eating. When the studies were over, some of the participants thanked us, 'You may have saved our lives.' . . . Now, the question is: Will restaurants that are required to unmask the wizard, will they start making healthier options?"

If the prominent displays of caloric data pays off for a niche demographic, they could be a starting point to understanding how to motivate more and more eaters to seek out healthier options. If they don't, it's back to the drawing board.

Photo (cc) from Flickr user Wordridden. Chart via "Nutrient Contribution of Food Away From Home" using data from the United States Department of Agriculture's "Food Consumption, Prices and Expenditures, 1996."

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