Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Restaurant-goers need calorie information sooner, study says

I have appreciated the growing practice of listing calorie information on restaurant menus and vending machines. But Duke University researchers say it's too little too late.

In a study published today, they suggest a better approach: Improve calorie listings on websites and mobile apps so customers can prepare to order healthy items before they arrive.

"If consumers wait until they enter restaurants to make purchasing decisions, it might be too late," said lead author Gary Bennett, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, global health at Duke. 

"Particularly for those who are watching their waistlines, it’s important to make plans before stepping through the restaurant doors."

The Food and Drug Administration is working out the final rules for menu calorie labeling as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The Duke study, published on the website of the journal PLOS ONE, assessed the top 100 U.S. chain restaurants’ websites for the availability of and ease of access to calorie information. 

The study, funded by the Duke Obesity Prevention Program, found that only 46.3 percent of the restaurants surveyed had a separate online section identifying healthy eating options. Increasing this feature on restaurant websites could help diners make better choices, researchers said.

Similar research by Gavan Fitzsimons at Duke's Fuqua School of Business has found that including a healthy option on an in-store menu did not translate into healthier eating choices. On the contrary, Fitzsimons found that just seeing the healthier item on an in-store menu tended to make people more likely to eat less-healthy food. (What does that say about human behavior?)

Another Duke study done in King County, Washington, found that adding nutrition facts to menus at one fast-food chain had no effect on consumer behavior in its first year.