Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Calorie Changes in the Menus of the Top 200 U.S. Chain Restaurants from 2010 to 2014

Friday, November 13, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Cameron Wright1, Roland Sturm1, Helen Wu2 and Sarah Niederman3, (1)RAND Corporation, (2)University of California, Davis, (3)New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene
Background:  Americans consume about a third of their calories away from home. In order to inform consumer decision making in this setting, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 required chain restaurants to list calories on menus, although the enforcement of the law was not finalized until 2014. Menu-labeling laws may affect consumer decisions and could prompt industry changes, such as reduced portions, reformulation, or the addition of healthier menu items, in anticipation of changing demands.

Objective: We examine changes in calories of menu items available in U.S. chain restaurants from 2010 to 2014. 

Data: We worked with the New York State Department of Health to merge data collected by our group for 2010 into their MenuStat data system for later years. We were able to match menu items for 124 restaurant chains operating in 2010 and 2014. 

Methods:  Generalized linear models were used to examine the change in mean calories per menu item between 2010 and 2014. Three measures were examined with this type of model: the change in mean calories in all menu items, the change in mean calories of menu items that existed on menus in both 2010 and 2014, and the difference in mean calories between menu items that appear in 2014 only and items that appear in 2010 only. To examine trends in calories across the distribution, we also used quantile regression. 

Results:  The mean calories of all menu items increased by 11 calories (2% increase) from 2010 to 2014. Mean calories of entrees increased by 22 calories (3% increase).  Mean values of all other food categories, other than soups (13% increase), were not significantly changed. Calories of menu items increased at all examined points in the calorie distribution except the 90th percentile, where there was no significant change. There was no significant change in mean calories of items that were on menus in both 2010 and 2014.  This result holds for each food category (entrees, appetizers, dessert, etc.) and each part of the calorie distribution. New menu items added in 2014 had 13 more calories (2% increase) than menu items that were present in 2010 and dropped prior to 2014. For particular food categories, new entrees had 36 more calories (5% increase) than old entrees.  New soups increased by 55 calories (23% increase) over old soups. Mean calories of new pizza items decreased by 55 calories (11% decrease). Calorie increases for new items were concentrated in the lower part of the calorie distribution and there was no significant difference in calories for new items above the median of the distribution.

Discussion: Menu labeling is certainly no longer contentious. Even the National Restaurant Association issued a press release stating that it “...strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers… ". Research so far has focused on consumer responses and this study adds new data on potential industry responses. In contrast to several claims, we find little change in menus over time and no evidence of widespread item reformulation or additions of healthier items.