Listing Calories Online May Help Consumers Make Healthier Decisions
August 20, 2013

Listing Calories Online May Help Consumers Make Healthier Decisions

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

A new study from Duke University claims restaurants would do well to include caloric listings along with their healthier offerings on their websites and apps.

As the nation discusses healthcare reform, there are those who are quite concerned with what role the obesity epidemic will have on the conversation. According to the Duke University study, Americans can only make healthier choices if they’re aware of them. If customers could see the caloric content of the burger they plan to order or the chicken caesar salad they had last evening for dinner, they may make different choices in the future.

To entice customers to keep returning and buying their food, restaurants often dress up their meals with butter-rich sauces or increase the fat and salt in the dish to make it more crave-worthy. This, combined with very large portions, could be blamed for helping one-third of Americans become obese.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently hammering out the final rules for menu and calorie labeling, and Gary Bennett, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University wants them to consider forcing restaurants to be more straightforward about what is in their meals.

“If consumers wait until they enter restaurants to make purchasing decisions, it might be too late,” said Bennet in a press statement. His paper will be available at PLoS ONE on August 21, 2013.

“Particularly for those who are watching their waistlines, it’s important to make plans before stepping through the restaurant doors. That’s why we were interested in understanding whether and how calorie information was available online.”

Bennet says he’s pleased with the effort restaurants have been making thus far by placing caloric information on their menu boards or other promotional materials. Yet he believes more can be done by making this information extremely available to any customer. Including this information on a website or in a specific app could help customers make a decision before entering the establishment. After all, as Bennet points out, it can often be hard to make a healthy choice once they enter the establishment’s doors and are subjected to the sights, smells and, more importantly, the clever marketing often employed by the larger chain restaurants.

In his study, Bennet discovered food service establishments aren’t providing this information in a clear or consistent manner. FDA guidelines could provide a singular and coherent way in which to list this particular information. For instance, Bennet found 82 percent of the websites viewed in the research list calorie information on their websites. However, only 25 percent of these restaurants provided the same information on mobile-ready versions of their sites. As more people are accessing the Internet through their mobile devices, this could potentially leave many customers in the dark.

Another 51 percent of the websites reviewed in the research linked to this information directly from their homepage. The majority of the restaurants that did link to this information were larger chains -- fast food restaurants and other large, casual dining establishments. Additionally, while half of the websites reviewed in this study did list their healthy options in a separate menu, Bennet says it’s currently up to the particular restaurant to determine how they define “healthy options.”

Though Bennet and team say making this information available could help customers make better choices, they did not research if this translates directly to healthier eating habits.

Perhaps of no surprise, a paper published in the British Medical Journal in May found most people are not aware of how many calories are in their restaurant meals.

A Harvard research team found, through interviews with people eating at fast food restaurants, most consumers underestimate the amount of calories that are in their meals by quite a large margin.