Earlier this month, Nation’s Restaurant News reported the FDA granted a one-year delay in the ACA’s new menu-labeling requirements. The provision mandates a standardized disclosure of nutritional information about a restaurant’s menu items.
The FDA agreed with petitioners who argued they need more clarity on the guidelines. The industry also claimed it needed to time to figure out labeling for items where portion size and ingredients widely vary – like pizza and deli items. The provision is now set to go into effect on December 1, 2016.
The goal is to educate diners on what is – and isn’t – good for them. Given that millennials eat out over four times a week, this could point new generations in a healthier direction.
The real question is: Do diners really want to know?
The debate about supermarket labels
We’ve seen debates on nutrition labels before. Today, the “Nutrition Facts” label on packaged goods is almost universal. Even the produce aisle lists the nutrients and calories per serving of each veggie.
But do people read them?
Studies by the University of Michigan seem to say the answer is “no.” Eye-tracking technology showed when shoppers scan labels, only 9% even looked at calorie count. And yet other university studies show that those who DO read labels weigh almost 9 pounds less than those who don’t.
In other words, the labels can help, but only if shoppers pay attention to them.
The difference between shoppers and diners
When we go out to eat, are we as careful as when we eat at home?
Generally, when we dine out, it’s either on the fast and cheap – like grabbing something quick for lunch – or it’s a more casual experience. We don’t usually associate fast food with nutrition, but even so, 24 percent of us want to see it on the menu. Whether we order it or not, it feels good to know it’s there.
With casual dining, it’s more about the experience. Diners expect to see healthier options, especially at fast casuals. The implementation of kiosks and mobile ordering apps have taken a step in the right direction in terms of displaying nutrition facts, but how much influence does that actually have on customer selections?
Some restaurants like Chipotle, Jason’s Deli, Starbucks and Panera Bread are ahead of the pack on menu labeling. Besides calories, many labels include detail on each ingredient, such as sodium, fat and sugars.
In QSRs, often the goal is to eat fast and cheap. Seeing calorie counts can help weight-conscious consumers feel good about having real choices. If labels indeed have the power to influence and change what customers order, the perception of fast food may change as well.
It is unknown at this point how the new menu-labeling requirements will affect consumer choices long term, but it’s a step in the right direction and could cause another fundamental shift in the already fast-paced food and restaurant industry.
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Michelle Strong is chief marketing officer at LRS and an advocate for meaningful customer engagement.