The Food and Drug Administration announced in late November that it had finalized two rules requiring the listing of caloric information on menus at chain restaurants, vending machines and retail food establishments. The rules, which will take effect in one year, are a little-known provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and will offer consumers a glimpse of just how many calories are in foods ranging from take-out pizza to movie theater popcorn.
Brenna Ellison is a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois. An expert in food and nutrition policy and consumer food preference and behaviors, Ellison spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about what effect the new FDA rules will have on calorie consumption.
You co-authored research that found using symbols like a traffic light in conjunction with numerical calorie counts was more effective in reducing the number of calories people consumed than numeric labels alone. What is your take on the FDA's new rules? Are they making a mistake by not including some sort of symbol to go along with the raw numbers?
Our research shows that number-only calorie labels had the greatest impact on those who were the least health-conscious, which is good news because this is exactly the demographic that the government is trying to reach with this information. Labels of any form - provided they are relatively easy to understand - are likely to have the biggest impact on less health-conscious diners because the information is essentially brand new to them.
So the new FDA labeling rules are a step in the right direction. Although research, including my own and that of many others, has shown the reduction in calories ordered to be relatively small in magnitude, consumers are still better off with some information rather than none.
Americans increasingly consume more food and beverages outside of the home, and fast food and restaurant food both tend to have more calories than homemade meals. Even though numeric labels alone may be slightly less effective than the combination of symbols and numbers, is there still some value in having the information? Do you foresee consumers eventually becoming savvier with calorie counts?
Yes, there is value in having the information on restaurant menus. Again, I would argue some is generally better than none. I expect a certain segment of health-conscious consumers to become more interested and knowledgeable about the foods they are eating away from home, which do account for a substantial proportion of food dollars spent and calories consumed.
When you think about dining out, particularly in a fast-food setting, many people are habitual in their ordering behavior. In other words, they may always order a burger and fries when they go to a certain restaurant. In many of these cases, diners may not even consult the menu, so any type of calorie labels is unlikely to influence their order.
It would be overly optimistic to expect this will change the eating habits of all consumers. If the labels only result in a one-time calorie reduction, the effect is relatively muted. Our research shows that, on average, the combination symbolic-and-numeric nutrition label only reduced total calories ordered by about 69 calories.
But even small reductions in the number of calories consumed could add up to a few pounds in a year.
Your research also talks about the "licensing effect," meaning that diners who ate a healthy entree sometimes splurged on a high-calorie dessert or after-dinner drink. Is this a potential pitfall that health-conscious consumers should be aware of?
The licensing effect is definitely possible, now that people will be able to more readily identify lower-calorie alternatives. That being said, in my own research, this effect was more prevalent when the traffic light symbols were on the menus, such that ordering a green-light entrée entitled a diner to order a red-light dessert.
Based on the current research, our first priority is still getting people to understand and use the calorie information.
If nothing else, will the new FDA rules remove the "health halo" from certain entrees such as salads, which diners expect to be healthy but sometimes are just as caloric as a burger and fries?
Hopefully so, but this hinges on consumers using and understanding the labels, and putting the number of calories of a certain dish in the context of daily caloric needs.