What calorie postings mean to consumers

New NPD survey looks at ordering and eating habits when diners see calorie counts

While the restaurant industry waits for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to publish its proposed federal menu-labeling regulations, market research firm NPD Group said listed calorie counts could alter certain behaviors among restaurant customers.

While drastic changes to customers’ ordering and eating habits are not expected, NPD research found that consumers may look to avoid French fries, larger hamburgers and shakes, for example. Check averages may drop very slightly as well. Still, the number of items ordered and the amount of calories per meal are not expected to change dramatically when calories are listed.

To gauge the impact of calorie counts on menus, Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD conducted a study in which adult consumers were asked to order from two versions of a typical quick-service menu. One menu contained caloric information while the other did not.

NPD said buying preferences changed little from one menu to the other. Consumers ordering off the menu listing calorie counts averaged about 901 calories per order. By comparison, consumers ordering from the other menu averaged 1,021 calories — a spread that NPD said was not significantly different.

In addition, customers ordered about the same number of items from the two menus, opting for an average of 3.3 items when calories were posted and 3.2 items when calories were not posted.

“Calories aren’t the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out,” said NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs. “We found through our research that quality — as in fresh, natural and nutritious — is the most important healthy eating attribute when they dine out.”

However, the report found that posting calorie counts on menus did cause consumers to opt for or avoid certain selections. For example, when calories were listed, servings declined for French fries, carbonated soft drinks, one-third-pound burgers, shakes and smoothies, onion rings, and some chicken sandwiches.

Meanwhile, some foods — like regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers, diet soft drinks, salads without dressing, and grilled chicken wraps — were ordered more often when survey respondents chose from the labeled menu.

Calorie posting also affected check averages slightly, NPD said. Participants spent an average of $6.40 when ordering from the menu without calories and $6.20 from the version containing caloric data. Riggs suggested the difference was a result of consumers opting for smaller portion sizes of items like French fries.

The federal menu-labeling provision states that chains with 20 or more outlets across the country must post calorie information on menus and menu boards. The FDA said it would issue its proposed menu-labeling regulations March 23.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]