McDonald's in Milan

Educational Fast-Food Menus

We’re not having much luck with educational fast-food menus. Try as we might, studies of the impact of nutrition labeling on fast-food menus keep yielding the wrong results. The latest study by Brian Elbel and colleagues will be presented in a special Obesity Journal Symposium at Obesity Week on Friday, November 15, at 3:30.

The study provides a robust analysis of the impact of fast-food menu labeling. And what it finds is virtually no impact. Consumers notice the information but purchase the same number of calories and make the same number of visits to fast-food restaurants. Elbel et al conclude:

Given the limits of labeling reported here and in other studies, other policy responses to obesity must be sought out that rely less on consumers responding to the presentation of numerical information. More substantial changes to the food environment could have a larger impact.

McDonald's Speedee Service Menu
This whole subject of restaurant menu labeling is shaping up to be a great study in motivated reasoning. Everyone seems to agree that consumer choice is a good thing. And a dedicated group of activists seem convinced that if we just give consumers enough education on restaurant menus, they’ll make better (healthier) choices. The data are not cooperating.

The Pacific Standard recently published an thoughtful analysis of this situation, referencing a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). They note that the RWJF report shows “four out of five controlled studies have found no evidence that labeling reduces calorie consumption at chain restaurants.”

You’d be hard pressed to find that information in the RWJF report. It’s buried in a table. RWJF gives the slightest nod to the inconvenient data, saying “evidence from real-world cafeteria and restaurant studies regarding calories purchased or menu items selected is mixed.”

All this inconvenient data is pointing to a fundamental fact of consumer choice and marketing. Emotion drives consumer choices, not numbers. When the choices are about food, emotions are especially strong. You can bury consumers in education with nutrition numbers and their behavior will not change one bit.

But motivated reasoning leads the folks pushing their menu labeling agenda to ignore inconvenient findings and press on harder than ever.

Educational fast-food menus are a futile exercise. Time to try something that might work.

Click here to read the study by Elbel et al, click here to read more in the Pacific Standard, and click here to read the RWJF report.

McDonald’s in Milan, photograph © danbehling / flickr

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