Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How do customers respond to calorie data in restaurants?

Suppose you walk into a Panera craving a salad on a hot summer day.  Suppose also you are either trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight.  You see that your choices range in calories between 375 (strawberry poppyseed with chicken) and 970 (chopped steak and blue cheese).  Which choice do you make?  The real low-cal option would be to take the strawberry poppyseed and drink water.  But maybe you adjust your order to include the chocolate chipper cookie as well (440 calories) since you saved so many calories on the entree.  Add a bag of chips or a smoothie and your calorie savings go poof!

Last week WSJ ran a piece summarizing recent research on how customers react to calorie information when dining out.  As a general rule, dishes you select in restaurants will have more calories than if you fixed comparable items at home because chefs add more oil and butter to make them taste better. 

Two recent studies find that calorie counts have modest effects on behavior.  One study found that only 1 in 6 customers paid any attention to the calorie data and that group consumed 96 fewer calories per visit.  Another found a 6% calorie drop overall. 

Some restaurants are starting to change their recipes as well.  Cheesecake Factory has reduced the sauce on each serving of Bistro Shrimp Pasta so that the calorie count drops from 2980 to 2440.  Applebee's now has an under 550 calorie menu with steak, chicken and pasta options.  But not everyone has jumped on the calorie moderation bandwagon; we still have Hardee's and the 2/3 pound Monster Thickburger (1290 calories). 

Bottom line: People eat more food away from home now than ever before.  I am convinced that this is contributing to the our obesity epidemic.  Calorie counts appear to give customers a small nudge toward moderation. 

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