According to a survey of 300 diners by The Mystery Dining Company (TMDC), 44 per cent of respondents said nutritional information would encourage them to choose dishes with fewer calories per course, while 27 per cent would choose the main meal they wanted but forgo a starter or dessert to reduce overall calorie intake.
However, when asked to imagine themselves in a situation where the menu item they most wanted was 2,000kcals when most of the menu items held lower values, over 50 per cent said they would still order their preferred dish.
“What we’re seeing here is peoples’ intentions and what they like to think they would do,” said Steven Pike, managing director of TMDC. “Because diners are imagining themselves dealing with this situation, their response here gives us a more realistic idea of how they may truly react.
“People like to think they’d be quite virtuous and they’re consciously trying to do the right thing, but many of them will go on to eat what they want anyway and that will quite possibly override what their intentions are before they go into a place.”
Whlie 29 per cent said they would think twice but still order their preferred dish anyway, 22 per cent said calorie labelling would make no difference to them, and order the dish 'without hesitation'.
However 9 per cent said they would choose a healthier dish but feel ‘irritated’ and ‘annoyed’.
“This is a small but very vocal minority,” Pike said. “There is clearly a group of people that wouldn’t be impressed with this. They see eating out as a treat and wouldn’t want to be reminded of how many calories they’re consuming. The trick is to make sure people have the choice and I expect people will at least feel informed.”
Despite the results, 64 per cent agreed restaurants should be forced to disclose nutritional information on their menus.
New York effect
The results mirror those of a New York study of how nutritional labelling has actually affected diners’ calorie intake when eating out since the US state regulated the move in 2008.
Just 15 per cent of around 7,000 consumers made use of the information to make healthier choices, with the report concluding that ‘no overall decline in calories purchased was observed for the full sample’, lending weight to arguments that a similar mandatory scheme in the UK will have no effect on consumers’ eating habits.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a similar result to New York if calorie labelling was widespread here, because to an extent people do what they want to. Subconsciously they’ll probably be aware of information and perhaps be educated, while a proportion of people will avoid certain items and may alter what they order, but I suspect it won’t dramatically affect trade.”
Pike predicts that if consumers do cut back on calorie intake it will be at those outlets where ‘you might imagine food to be manufactured’, and not at high-end independent restaurants where the food quality is expected to be higher and diners are often treating themselves.
The introduction of calorie-labelled menus presents a financial problem to the restaurant industry that is already feeling the burden of an unecessary amount of red tape.
“The widespread introduction of nutritional information could have a serious impact on restaurateurs – both in terms of the time needed to ensure details are accurate and the cost required to reprint menus," Pike adds.
"It would be hugely detrimental to the industry if chefs no longer had the flexibility to change menus on a regular basis and independent operators had to become more dependent on pre-made products which were supplied with nutritional information, rather than cooking from scratch"