Eat

Lower-Calorie Menu Items Help Restaurant Sales

Restaurants and other establishments can help their sales by offering lower-calorie menu items because consumers are selecting fewer calorie dense foods and sugary drinks. A new analysis found that restaurants with more lower-calorie menu items had an average 5.5% growth in same-store sales compared with a 5.5% decrease among establishments selling fewer lower-calorie servings. What is healthier for consumers is increasingly good for restaurants as well.

The increase in same-store restaurant sales may be a happy coincidence. Eateries and chains adding more nutritious choices and reducing calories has been largely due to consumer demand and impending federal regulations that will require restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. In just one example, Sbarro is offering a “skinny slice” with a different mix of cheese and more vegetables that yields a menu item of 270 calories. Panera Bread Company, which was an early adopter of posting menu items’ calories, found that after displaying calorie counts on menu boards that 20% of customers began ordering lower-calorie items.

The new analysis, conducted by the Hudson Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, examined restaurant servings and traffic data between 2006 and 2011 along with Nation’s Restaurant News sales trends, to analyze whether or not increased offerings of lower-calorie menu items in 21 national restaurant chains would result in good business performance. These 21 national chains represent half the sales of the top 100 chains. The analysts concluded that  restaurant chains with expanded lower-calorie menu items drove sales growth with those items. Lower-calorie servings were defined as sandwiches and entrees containing 500 or fewer calories, beverages with 50 or fewer calories per eight ounces, and side dishes, appetizers and desserts with 150 or fewer calories.

This report’s news is positive for restaurants, because they must post calories of menu items by early next year. It is also good news for consumers who will find more healthy portions available at restaurants. This may help combat the large portion sizes that most restaurants serve, potentially creating a trend of smaller serving sizes. But Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, cautions that consumers are not as good about watching their calories when they dine out as when they eat at home. She also notes that several studies have linked frequent restaurant visits with higher obesity rates.

Click here to more in the Wall Street Journal, here to read more in the New York Times, and here to read the report from the Hudson Institute.

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