As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) readies to submit its proposed regulations for the federal menu labeling law by the March 23, 2011 deadline, the lingering question is how will U.S. consumers react to seeing calories on menus? According to The NPD Group, calorie information on menus will most likely have little long-term effects on consumer ordering patterns.

The federal menu labeling law, which restaurant chains with 20 or more units are expected to implement in the latter half of 2012, requires chains to display calories for standard menu items, as well as calories for each serving of food at a salad bar or buffet line. The national menu labeling law will preempt a number of state and local menu labeling laws already in effect in cities such as New York City, California and Philadelphia.

To help restaurant operators in gauging consumers’ response to calorie postings on menus, NPD conducted a survey among adults ages 18 and older as part of a recent report, “Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat.” Panelists were asked to indicate items they would order from two versions of a typical fast food hamburger restaurant menu. Their first exposure was to a typical menu board without calorie information. Their second exposure was to the same menu board, but with calorie counts shown alongside the price of each item. The before and after 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. The average number of calories ordered when calories were posted was 901, compared to 1,021 when calories were not posted. The NPD study also 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, versus 3.2 when they were.

“Calories aren’t the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out,” said 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 the order 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 and some chicken sandwiches. On the other hand, NPD found that the calorie postings increased orders for other foods. For example, orders increased for regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers, diet carbonated soft drinks, salads without dressing and grilled chicken wraps.

“The takeaway for restaurant chains is that, 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,” Riggs said.

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