New Mintel research indicates that for restaurant operators, the good news about the new federal requirement that chains post calorie and nutritional information for menu items is that most restaurant patrons are enthusiastic about the coming transparency, effective in 2011.
However, the consumer findings also indicate that affected chains (all that have 20 or more locations) clearly need to think through the implications now and prepare to maximize the plusses and minimize potential negatives -- including calorie sticker shock and challenges related to balancing menu offerings.
The menu labeling language included in the new health-care bill will require posting calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-throughs, and providing other nutritional information on request. Exemptions include items that will be on the menu for less than 60 days and customized orders.
(Vending machine operators will also be required to post calorie information in "close proximity" to each article of food or the selection button.) The Food and Drug Administration must propose specific regulations by March, and the regulations will be finalized through a formal rulemaking process.
Mintel found that more than 60% of restaurant-goers believe that restaurants should post nutritional information on menus, and 44% think that federal or local governments should facilitate such actions.
However, as restaurant operators are well aware, diners continue to be torn between a desire to eat healthier meals and their long-inculcated taste preferences for foods that are often high in calories, fat and sodium.
Case in point: Nearly 60% of Mintel's survey respondents say that, when they're going out to dinner, they want something that "tastes great," while just 23% claim to want to eat a healthy meal.
At the same time, only 14% say that they're never interested in ordering a healthy restaurant meal, and nearly half report eating more healthful meals in restaurants during the past year.
In other words, restaurant patrons are attracted to healthful meals -- as long as they are also flavorful. "Menu transparency will allow consumers to have control over their food decisions with a complete understanding of what they're eating," notes Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel. "However, getting people to eat healthier requires more than just posting calories or adding healthy options to the menu. The food also has to taste good."
Consumers report using a variety of methods for adopting healthier eating habits in restaurants. The most common (employed by 66%) is reducing fat consumption. In addition, 52% report eating more fruits and vegetables, and 49% report reducing calorie intake by simply ordering less food.
From restaurants' perspective, "there is a concern that healthy menu items may not sell, but there is also a danger in having a calorie-laden menu when the calorie count law starts taking effect," stresses Giandelone. "There may be some initial consumer shock at the calorie counts, and chains may have to start listing lower-calorie options or smaller portion sizes to help diffuse this unpleasant surprise."