Li Miao (Photo by Mark Simons)
Rising obesity rates and implementation of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act laws have shone a spotlight on calorie information as it relates to consumer food choices. A mandate from the Food and Drug Administration requires that restaurants with more than 20 outlets post this data.
Li Miao, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management, is conducting research on the topic and has found an interesting dilemma: Knowledge of disclosed calorie information alone may not lead necessarily to healthful choices.
"Food choice is ultimately a personal choice and is highly idiosyncratic," Miao says. "Perceptions about food are often susceptible to cognitive biases and these biases influence food choices."
Implications of menu labeling
The FDA-mandated deadline has been extended partially due to pushback from the restaurant industry. Miao says there is a general fear among restaurant operators that consumers will shy away from menu items with high calorie counts, affecting restaurants' profitability. However, one study that Miao conducted found otherwise.
"The results actually showed that just adding the calorie information to the menu made some consumers perceive the same food items they normally ate to be instantly healthier," she says. "It shows that knowledge of calorie information does not always lead to behavioral changes."
New York Times food writer Mark Bittman recently chronicled a new movie titled Fed Up that is looking at standard American diet recommendations. Established in 1980, the findings recommended that Americans consume food lower in fat. That change, however, has led to a 25 percent increase in calories consumed due to added sugar, the author found.
Miao says Bittman makes a great point. "Calorie counts on menu labels are at best suggestive," she says. "The actual calories provided by the same food can vary considerably from individual to individual depending on the makeup of the food and digestion process. Science related to such processes still leaves many unanswered questions."
In hospitality management research like that being conducted by Miao, the focus is on how food served in restaurants affects consumer choices and well-being.
Changing perceptions to promote health
In one study, she observed the "halo effect" — the perceived healthfulness of food. Categorically, people tend to perceive food as healthier if a restaurant promotes a healthful image and the converse with perceived unhealthy options.
One hundred eighty-nine consumers in an Indiana town participated in a scenario-based, quick-service investigation. This Midwestern group was unlikely to have acquired accurate calorie information of menu items, though some may have had sporadic exposure while traveling to regions where calorie information has been implemented.
The study used two quick-service restaurants to represent "unhealthful" and "healthful" establishments.
In restaurants perceived as healthful, like Subway and Panera Bread, those with access to calorie information chose food items with significantly lower calorie counts than those without such information. In contrast, in restaurants perceived as unhealthful, like Wendy's, consumers with calorie information tended to choose menu items with higher calorie counts than those without such information, but the difference between the two groups was negligible.