Consumers may respond differently to nutrition labeling in restaurants than to labels in grocery stores. On the one hand, consumers may be more likely to pay attention to restaurant labeling because it provides the calorie content for an entire dish versus the individual ingredients for a home-prepared meal. On the other hand, restaurant patrons may be looking for a quick lunch, a simple solution to tonight’s dinner dilemma, or a way to celebrate a special occasion. In these instances, nutrition content or calorie modification may not be a priority.

ERS researchers found that people’s knowledge about health and nutrition issues has less impact on the diet quality of their food choices when they eat away from home. They also found that even dieters choose less healthy options when eating out than when eating at home. These findings suggest that diners may pay less attention to nutritional information when eating out than when shopping for the week’s meals.

According to one study of food choices in fast food restaurants, New York City’s calorie labeling law did not appear to have an effect on the quantity of calories consumers purchased. The law, which took effect on July 19, 2008, requires restaurants with at least 15 outlets to post calorie counts for all regular menu items. New York University (NYU) researchers collected receipts and survey responses from 821 adults at fast food restaurants in low-income, minority neighborhoods in New York City. Their purchases were compared with those of 335 adults in Newark, NJ—a city with similar urban and demographic characteristics, but no menu labeling. Data were collected just before and 1 month after labeling was introduced in New York City.

The NYU researchers found that 27.7 percent of New York City customers who saw the calorie labeling indicated that the information influenced their choices, and about 88 percent of these customers said they purchased fewer calories in response to the labeling. Their receipts showed otherwise, however. Survey participants in New York City purchased about the same number of calories both before and after the labeling law took effect—and about the same amount as the Newark participants.

Findings from a Stanford University study show different results. Researchers compared Starbucks sales in New York City (pre- and post-mandatory calorie labeling) with sales in Boston and Philadelphia, where there were no calorie postings. The researchers found that mandatory calorie posting caused average calories to fall by 6 percent—from 247 to 232 calories per transaction. Almost all of the effect was related to food purchases; there was almost no change in purchases of beverage calories.