Give Calories Counts a Fair Chance


When you visit chain restaurants these days you may notice other numbers posted besides the price – calorie counts are now mandated by law in all restaurants with more than 20 locations.

This information enables consumers to make better-informed food choices. The hope, of course, is that this policy will lead to healthier and lower calorie choices by restaurant patrons. It may also push restaurants towards menu changes offering lower calorie options.

Is it working? In all respects, it’s too early to tell. The law went into effect in May 2018, although many chain restaurants have been posting calorie counts for a while. Early results are mixed.

Numbers seem like clearly defined and absolute entities, but they’re really not, and just like a price of an item may seem expensive or affordable, depending on its placement, font, context, presence or absence of the $ sign, and our state of mind, it will take further refinement to understand what calorie counts do in the mind of different consumers.

Most people spend just a minute or two reading a menu. Menus are therefore engineered and carefully crafted to draw attention to specific items, and this is done through placement, highlighting, language, symbols and many tricks of the trade.

Location location location

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology looks at the location of the calorie count and its effect on food choices.

Right now, restaurants can present the calorie count anywhere they want on the menu. Most of the time, they first list the name of the food, and the calorie count is to the right of the item, which makes sense – the food’s name is the most important information.

The authors hypothesized that this order, though, makes ignoring the calorie count too easy.

English readers read from left to right, and the first piece of information is given disproportionate weight. If this is the case, placing calorie counts to the left would make caloric considerations more powerful.

To test this hypothesis the researchers, led by Steven Dallas, gave customers waiting at a casual chain restaurant three types of paper menus to order from, one on which the calories were listed to the left of the menu item, one in which the calories count was to the right of the food, and one with no calorie listing at all.

When the calorie count was to the left, experimental consumers ordered foods with 24 percent fewer calories.

On the other hand, when the calories were to the right people ordered the same amount of calories as when there was no caloric information at all.

If this theory is true it should be language specific, so to further test how reading order affects choice the experiment was repeated with a language read from right to left. And indeed, when tested with a Hebrew menu among Israelis, the menus with calorie counts to the right of the food item scored lower calorie orders.

The right spot isn’t everything, however.

It’s very likely that calorie counts matter more to people with a health or weight goal. Low calorie counts might also actually dissuade some consumers who believe that low calorie and healthy foods don’t satisfy as much and are less palatable.

What’s clear, however, is that the optimal way to present healthier food to customers warrants much more research, investigation and attention.

Menu design is an art and a science. Menu consultants know that the order and position of items, as well as the wording choices and the pricing affect consumers’ choices.

Today’s diners are busy and overloaded with information. We skim, we skip and we use every shortcut we can towards a quick decision. For healthier and lower calorie options to gain prominence the same hacks used to grab our attention –visual cues, great copywriting and optimal placement – need to be considered and tweaked.

Dr. Ayala