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Do Menu Labels Cause Diners to Order Fewer Calories?

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

John Cawley PhD Professor of policy analysis and management College of Human Ecology Cornell University

Dr. Cawley

John Cawley PhD
Professor of policy analysis and management
College of Human Ecology
Cornell University

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: The background is that diet-related chronic disease has increased dramatically in the US and many other economically developed countries. For example, the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. has roughly tripled since 1960, and the prevalence of Type II diabetes has also increased significantly.  As a result, policymakers are looking for ways to facilitate healthy eating.  One possible approach is to require that restaurants list on their menus the number of calories in each menu item.  Several cities such as New York City and Philadelphia passed such laws, and in May of this year (2018) a nationwide law took effect requiring such calorie labels on the menus of chain restaurants. However, the effects of this information is not well known.

To answer that question, we conducted randomized controlled field experiments in two sit-down, full-service restaurants.  Parties of guests were randomly assigned to either the control group that got the regular menu without calorie information, or the treatment group that got the same menus but with calorie counts on the menu.  We then documented what items people ordered and then surveyed the patrons after their dinner.  Overall we collected data from over 5,000 patrons.

 MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: We found that having calorie labels on restaurant menus led patrons to order 3% fewer calories.  All of this was concentrated in appetizers and entrees; there was no detectable impact on either drinks or desserts.  This 3% reduction in calories in a restaurant dinner implies a roughly 1-pound reduction in weight after three years, so it has only a modest impact on weight.  Customers like the policy, though – a majority of the treatment and control groups said they support the policy, and exposure to the calorie labels increased that support significantly.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: It’s a relatively cheap policy to require that restaurants post this information.  And it seems that consumers respond, but ordering lower-calorie items.  Customers also like the policy.  There are also potential benefits beyond what we document; for example, it can lead to reformulation of items if restaurants are embarrassed by the number of calories in certain items. In addition, even if the information doesn’t lead to someone ordering fewer calories, it may help them choose items that are a better match for their preferences.

For future research, we recommend studying different ways of communicating calorie information, such as expressing it as miles one would have to walk to burn that much energy.  We also recommend randomized controlled trials in other types of restaurants; we studied full-service, sit-down restaurants, but it would be helpful to do this in fast food restaurants and coffeeshops as well.

We have no conflicts of interest on this subject.


John Cawley, Alex Susskind, Barton Willage. The Impact of Information Disclosure on Consumer Behavior: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment of Calorie Labels on Restaurant Menus. NBER Working Paper No. 24889, August 2018 DOI: 10.3386/w24889 

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Last Updated on September 17, 2018 by Marie Benz MD FAAD