Seeing calorie counts on menus has a relatively small effect on how consumers order, at least in a fast-food burger environment, according to new research from The NPD Group.
NPD's assessment is that the calorie-count posting that will be federally required for all chains with 20 or more units effective in this year's second half most likely won't have much of a long-term impact on ordering habits.
NPD conducted a study among adults as part of research for a report, "Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat." Consumers were shown a typical burger menu without and then with the calories posted, and asked to indicate which items they would order. With calories shown, consumers ordered items that amounted to fewer calories, but the difference in calories was relatively small. The average number of calories ordered when calories were posted was 901, compared to 1,021 when calories were not posted.
The study also found that on average, consumers ordered about the same number of items when calories were posted (3.2) as when calories weren't posted (3.3).
Consumers seeing calories on menus did cause a decrease in the order of foods that were already declining in terms of restaurant servings, such as French fries, carbonated soft drinks, one-third-pound hamburgers, shakes and smoothies, onion rings and some chicken sandwiches. On the other hand, the calorie postings increased orders for other foods, such as regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers, diet soft drinks, salads without dressing and grilled chicken wraps.
Calorie posting also slightly reduced average lunch and dinner check sizes. The average order with calorie postings was $6.20, versus $6.40 for no calories shown. This could be the result of ordering smaller portion sizes of French fries or other items, noted Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant analyst and author of the report.
NPD's research shows that quality -- meaning "fresh, natural and nutritious" -- rather than calorie counts, is the most important attribute to people looking for healthier options when they eat out, according to Riggs.
"The takeaway for restaurant chains is that in the short term, we expect consumers may react to calorie labeling with some shift in foods/beverages ordered, but expect that old behaviors will return in time," she says. "Operators may want to plan for some initial shift in product mix when the new menus are presented to consumers. Lower-calorie sides might be highlighted or promoted when the menu change is made, which could assist in keeping order sizes and check sizes up."