Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Influence of Labeling on Food Choices

We dine out six times a week and I am one of those guys who nearly always makes substitutions.  In my case it is to substitute more vegetables in place of starches and sugary stuff.

But according to the National Restaurant Association, 70% of diners customize their meals.  In part, this is the reason the NRA has long opposed nutritional labeling requirements on menus.

In July, the FDA issued nationwide requirements for labeling by December 1, 2016.  Unfortunately, the requirement only applies to food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations.

Of course the most common objection is that this will cost jobs.

This is also a claim that was made by many opposed to the Affordable Care Act, which required the labeling.  It is a reasonable caution that has now proven unfounded according to this chart in the Washington Post.

But with such limited application nutritional menu labeling won’t replace at least anytime soon the very popular food diary app MyFitnessPal (MFP) which cites medical studies finding that keeping a food journal doubles weight loss.

MFP has 85 million users now and has been acquired by Under Armour.

Many users synch it with activity trackers such as Fitbit, so last fall year when it was closing in on the 65 million mark, it conducted a study among 2,200 users in the United States and discovered the link between weight loss and friends.

It turns out that 44% prefer to keep their workouts private.  Of the 56% who prefer company 33% do it with a friend, 11% with a relative and 12% do it in a group exercise class (extroverts, I presume.)

Half noted that they would be inspired if their closest friend or relative lost 20 lbs.  Telling though is that one-in-six responded that they would react negatively with envy instead.

When it comes to fitness goals, negativity can be as viral as reinforcement can.  Many of those who are negative, the researcher noted, have given up that anything will ever work.  I would add that they don’t seem to want to make it work either.

These “haters” will be even more resentful as they order from a menu soon because nutritional information will lay bare to their friends and family the fact that their real problem is the food choices they make.

I felt this as a tall but heavy-set woman with ailing hips and/or knees who was taking her sweet time ordering in front of me at a Subway last week.

She interrupted her phone conversation to be sure the server put double meat on her foot-long as well as four full-length squirts of different sauces.

Had she consulted MFP, she would have probably seen that the sauces had as many calories as the entire sub.

She wasn’t going to be denied nor was she going to be rushed along which I suspect may be contributing to her weight and her disintegrating joints, a sense of entitlement she will take with her to the hospital as she drives healthcare costs up for others too.

MFP’s genius is that it makes you aware of tradeoffs but it can’t overcome denial and stubbornness yet.

Studies of restaurants posting nutritional information on menus show only a modest changes in the choices people make about the foods they eat although there is the argument that we all have a right to know what’s in our food.

But studies of another system, called Nutricate, which for several years has given restaurants the ability to print nutritional information as well as suggestions on receipts are much more promising.

Invented in 2006 by the founder of Silvergreens, Nutricate is much more than the smart receipts that push you to buy more and eat more by offering coupons which have a redemption rate of 3.5%.

Nutricate gives you a nutritional tally of what you order including subtracting or adding for substitutions as well as “did you knows” with information about more nutritional alternatives.

The result is not only cost-effective marketing for repeat customers but economists at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that by simplifying complex choices, Nutricate significantly changed people’s choices of what to order for the better.

All of this without reducing total sales I might add.

The researchers conclude that the reason the receipt approach works better than more complex menu approach is salience, much the way Netflix works by tracking preferences and making suggestions.

By this they mean that processing all of the information on a menu may cause some people cognitive overload while putting it on the receipt makes it more prominent.

At any rate, for those who are struggling with weight issues and food choices, note that solutions could be a close as your mobile device.

No comments: