Consumer response to labeling may depend on how, when, and where the information is presented. For example, behavioral economics studies show that how information is framed can have a major impact on its effect. Simply reading the calorie count of an individual menu item may have little meaning to individuals who are unaware of their own total daily caloric requirement. Unlike the New York City labeling law, the 2010 Act stipulates that menu and menu boards must include a statement about suggested total daily caloric intake.

In an ERS-funded study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a series of experiments where customers entering a sandwich shop were offered a free meal (sandwich, side, and drink) in exchange for completing a survey. Survey participants were randomly given one of three 1-page “featured subs” menus—one listing the five lowest calorie sandwiches, one listing the five highest calorie sandwiches, or one with a mix of high- and low-calorie options. The bottom of the page included the statement: “Additional subs are available in the pamphlet at the back of this binder.” Additionally, some of the three menu types listed the calories of each item, and some also included daily calorie recommendations.

The researchers found that providing calorie information did not encourage participants to select a low-calorie sandwich but did lower total meal calories by about 50 calories. On the other hand, confining the featured subs to the low-calorie options strongly influenced sandwich choice. Participants who received the menu with only low-calorie sandwiches were 48 percent more likely to choose a low-calorie sandwich than participants given the mixed menu.

In a later experiment, the researchers gave participants the same three featured sub menus but offered additional sandwich choices either contained in a sealed menu or on the next menu page. The researchers found that if they had to open the sealed menu to get to the higher calorie options, diners chose lower calorie sandwiches and reduced total calorie intake. In contrast, requiring customers to turn the page for additional options led them to choose lower calorie sandwiches, but they compensated by ordering higher calorie side dishes and drinks.

These two experiments suggest that calorie information and the prominence given to lower calorie options can affect away-from-home food decisions. The chance that a certain menu option is chosen may also depend on the caloric content of other menu options available. A diner’s perception of a double cheeseburger versus a low-fat veggie burger may change after reading the nutrient content of a quadruple bacon cheeseburger on that same menu. Including a super high-calorie option on the menu may reframe the relative healthfulness of the other choices—in this case, the double cheeseburger is now a comparatively moderate choice.

The names given to lower calorie, healthier menu items also can affect the likelihood that they are chosen. For example, making the lighter version of an entrée, side, or salad the new norm and renaming the original versions to reflect their higher fat or calorie content may be more effective at getting customers to choose the healthier options than simply presenting them as such.

The mixed results of these and other small-scale menu labeling studies suggest it is still too early to tell how restaurant calorie labeling will affect caloric intake. To fully gauge its impact, it will be important to monitor consumer food choices and restaurants’ menu options over a longer period of time. It is possible that diners, while making no change in their food purchases at a particular eating occasion, may opt to compensate by eating fewer calories at other meals. Consumers also may reduce the frequency of visits to restaurants with few low-calorie options.