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Final proposed calorie-count regulations due today; will consumers care?

Today is the deadline for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to submit its proposed regulations for the menu labeling law. Regardless of the final law, the looming question is how much they'll actually affect customer purchasing patterns.

According to a new survey from market research company The NPD Group, calorie counts on menus will likely have little impact on ordering.

As part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, foodservice operations with more than 20 locations must post calorie counts on menus and menu boards, a succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake, and a referral statement regarding the availability of additional nutrition information.

[image-nocss] FDA was given one year to come up with final proposed regulations, though mandatory requirements are not expected to take effect until after FDA finalizes the regulations, and no deadline for compliance has been given.

To help operators get a sense for consumer reaction to calorie counts, The NPD Group conducted a survey among adults ages 18 and older. Panelists were asked to indicate items they would order from two versions of a typical fast-food menu boardfirst a menu without calorie counts, then the same menu but with calorie counts next to the price of each item. The two ordering patterns were then compared.

After viewing the menu with the calories posted, consumers ordered items that amounted to fewer calories, but the difference in calories was relatively small, NPD reports. The average number of calories ordered when calories were posted was 901, compared to 1,021 when calories were not posted.

Further, the study found that consumers ordered about the same number of items when calories were posted. They ordered, on average, 3.3 when calories weren't posted, vs. 3.2 when they were.

"Calories aren't the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out," says Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst and author of the report. "We found through our research that quality, as in fresh, natural, and nutritious, is the most important healthy eating attribute when they dine out."

Consumers seeing calories on menus did cause a decrease in orders of foods that were already declining in terms of restaurant servings, such as french fries, carbonated soft drinks, one-third-pound hamburgers, shakes and smoothies, onion rings, some chicken sandwiches.

On the other hand, NPD found that the calorie postings increased orders for other foods, including regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers, diet carbonated soft drinks, salads without dressing, and grilled chicken wraps.

Average check sizes did decline slightly, from $6.40 to $6.20, which Riggs said could be the result of ordering a smaller portion size.

"In the short term, we expect consumers may react to calorie labeling with some shift in foods/beverages ordered, but expect that old behaviors will return in time," says Riggs. She recommends operators plan for some initial shift in product mix when the menus are first changed over, and to highlight or promote lower-calorie sides to help keep order sizes and check averages up.

For more information on the study, visit www.npd.com.


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