An Observational Study of Consumers' Accessing of Nutrition Information in Chain Restaurants

Christina A. Roberto, MS; Henry Agnew; Kelly D. Brownell, PhD

Disclosures

Am J Public Health. 2009;99(5):820-821. 

Abstract

In this observational study, we determined how frequently consumers accessed on-premises nutrition information provided at chain restaurants. The number of patrons entering and accessing nutrition information was recorded at 8 locations that were part of 4 major restaurant chains (McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks, and Au Bon Pain). Only 6 (0.1%) of 4311 patrons accessed on-premises nutrition information before purchasing food. This very small percentage suggests that such information should be more prominently displayed, such as on restaurant menu boards, to help customers make informed decisions.

Introduction

In an effort to address the obesity epidemic,[1] New York City has required chain restaurants to post calorie information on menu boards and other cities and states are considering similar policies.[2] The primary rationale for this mandate is that Americans eat a large proportion of meals away from home,[3] consume excess calories in the process because of large portions,[4,5,6] and are generally unaware of the caloric content of foods.[7,8]

The restaurant industry strongly opposes menu labeling legislation, arguing that because restaurants already make nutrition information accessible to customers online and on-premises, the cost of changing and cluttering menus is not justified. However, only about half of the largest chain restaurants make nutrition information available in some form,[9] and it is unclear how often customers use this information. We aimed to assess how many restaurant patrons access on-premises nutrition information in chain restaurants. We hypothesized that a negligible percentage of consumers would access this information.

Methods

We chose McDonald's, Burger King, Au Bon Pain, and Starbucks to be part of this observational study. The total number of adults and children who entered each restaurant during the observation period and the number who accessed on-premises nutrition information were recorded. Children who appeared too young to understand nutrition information (e.g., babies and children in strollers) were not counted.

In an effort to sample restaurants from both urban and suburban areas, we conducted observations at 2 separate locations for each restaurant chain. Observations occurred at a McDonald's on Manhattan's Upper West Side (prior to passage of New York City's menu label law); a Burger King, Starbucks, and Au Bon Pain in New Haven, CT; a McDonald's and a Burger King in a suburb of New Haven; and a Starbucks and Au Bon Pain located inside shopping malls in 2 different Connecticut suburbs.

Nutrition information in McDonald's and Burger King was displayed on a wall poster, and the McDonald's in Manhattan, as well as both Starbucks outlets, provided nutrition pamphlets. Nutrition information at Au Bon Pain was provided via an on-premises computer. At McDonald's and Burger King, customers were categorized as accessing the nutrition information if they (1) approached the poster on the wall and turned their head toward it (because one did not have to face the poster to purchase food) or (2) picked up a nutrition pamphlet (in the McDonald's restaurant only). At Au Bon Pain, an individual had to touch the computer screen, thus turning it on. At Starbucks, a nutrition pamphlet had to be picked up.

During the observations, research personnel sat in the restaurant in a place that allowed them to count the number of people entering the restaurant and to observe who accessed nutrition information. To remain inconspicuous, observers purchased food and brought books. All observations were performed for 1.5-hour intervals (with the exception of 2-hour intervals at Au Bon Pain in New Haven) during the following periods on a weekday and a weekend day: 8 AM to 10 AM, 11 AM to 1 PM, and 5 PM to 7 PM.

Forty-five observational intervals were completed—6 at each restaurant except for the Manhattan McDonald's (where 5 were performed) and the Au Bon Pain located in a shopping mall (where only 4 were completed because the mall did not open until late morning). All observations were conducted by research assistants blind to the study hypothesis, with the exception of the Manhattan McDonald's and the Au Bon Pain observations, which were conducted by C.A.B. and H.A. Twelve (27%) of the 45 observational intervals had 2 independent observers. Percentage agreement for total number of customers entering the store ranged from 95.08% to 100% for all of the intervals and was 100% for number of customers accessing information. When disagreement existed, a rounded average for total customers was used.

Results

Of the 1501 people who entered the McDonald's outlets, 1 woman and 1 man (0.1%) were observed accessing nutrition information prior to purchasing food, and 1 woman and 1 man accessed the information after making their purchases. Of the 482 people who entered the Burger Kings, only 2 men and 1 woman (0.6%) looked at the nutrition poster. Of the 1671 customers who entered the Au Bon Pains, 1 woman (0.06%) was observed accessing nutrition information. Finally, none of the 657 people who entered Starbucks accessed information.

Discussion

Overall, only 6 (0.1%) of 4311 restaurant patrons accessed nutrition information before making their purchases at 8 locations of 4 major restaurant chains. This finding is worrisome because people tend to underestimate the caloric content of fast-food meals,[7,8] which are typically higher in calories than are meals made at home.[5] People's inability to accurately estimate calories suggests that customers are unlikely to have looked up nutrition information online before entering the restaurant, and some large chains fail to provide nutrition information on their Web sites. Our results indicate that if on-premises nutrition information is to affect customers' purchasing behaviors,[10] it must be displayed in a highly visible place such as on a menu board.

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