PhotoAdding calorie counts to menus has been a popular point of discussion recently. While some believe it’s key to pushing consumers to make healthier food choices, others are convinced the act is pointless.

Though researchers have spoken out on both sides of the argument, a group of researchers from Dartmouth College recently found that restaurants that have both pictures of food and calorie counts are more likely to sway consumers’ ordering habits.

“Our findings suggest that calorie-labeling may alter responses in the brain’s reward system when considering food options,” said researcher Andrea Courtney. “Moreover, we believe that nutritional interventions are likely to be more successful if they take into account the motivation of the consumer, including whether or not they diet.”

The brain’s role

The researchers had 42 undergraduates participate in the study, with students looking at nearly 200 images of food both with calorie counts and without.

The group was split almost evenly between those who dieted and those who didn’t, as the researchers believed the two groups would make different food choices. Everyone was shown the same images, and most of them included fast food items.

While hooked up to an fMRI machine, the participants were asked to rate how much they wanted to eat the food on a scale from one to four, and then how likely they’d be to choose the food items in the dining hall on the same scale.

The researchers found that both dieters and non-dieters were affected by the combination of food pictures and calorie counts. After seeing both, the participants were less likely to choose the unhealthy items.  

However, when the calorie counts came off the food pictures, the results were a bit different. Those who dieted regularly were more likely to continue to avoid fattier foods, whereas the non-dieters didn’t have the same response.

The researchers saw these results as positive, as they further prove that consumers who are looking for healthier options will continue to seek them out when calorie counts aren’t available. However, when calorie counts are present, they help guide consumers’ choices.

“In order to motivate people to make healthier food choices, policy changes are needed that incorporate not only nutritional information, including calorie content, but also a public education component, which reinforces the long-term benefits of a healthy diet,” said researcher Kristina Rapuano.

Posting calorie counts

Earlier this year, chain restaurants with at least 20 stores were required to start providing customers with calorie information as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Though experts went back and forth on the pros and cons of this venture, the goal was to have consumers making healthier choices when they eat out.

Later in the year, researchers explored the effects of having calorie counts on menus and found that consumers were more likely to order something with fewer calories when the calorie information was in a prominent place.

“What this paper shows is that a trivially simple intervention could increase the power of calorie information on menus,” said researcher Steven Dallas. “The calorie labeling policy should not necessarily be deemed a failure, and could in fact become a powerful tool in combating the obesity epidemic.”


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