Emerging Issues in Food Policy and Consumer Decision Making based on Restaurant Menu Labeling

Statement of the Problem and its Importance

Having to make many choices about food consumption is a pervasive and continually recurring activity in the daily lives of consumers (Wansink and Sobal 2007). Mounting evidence suggests that restaurants play an increasingly central role in providing for consumers’ daily dietary demands, and recent legislation included in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 provides new requirements for the provision of nutritional information on restaurant menus. The past several years have been characterized by increasing exposure to such information in a wide range of restaurants as well as a growing body of literature using a variety of research approaches aimed at understanding the impact of this information. After a series of delays, the full measures of the ACA’s restaurant menu legislation are set to be fully implemented by May of 2017. As such, further understanding of how this information impacts restaurant ordering and consumption behaviors is critical for determining the effectiveness of this legislation and evaluating potential adaptations that might increase its impact.

Within the complex and changing landscape of understanding how menu labeling impacts both choice and consumption and the obvious linkages to consumer health and wellbeing, we particularly focus on two key realities that to date, have received scarce attention:

  • While information provision has focused almost exclusively on calorie counts, other types of information may also be helpful in facilitating decision making. We plan to address various types of information, their relative importance, and any interactions among the information and other components of food choice and consumption.
  • Restaurants have many options to consider in response to how to adjust given the new menu information disclosure requirements. For example, they may respond by adjusting recipes to provide healthier (or, possibly less healthy) options, adjust portion sizes, or change offerings related to different types of foods (e.g., appetizers, entrees, side items, desserts, beverages, and so on). We plan to examine the possibilities provided by each of these options and how they affect consumer decision making.

Building on these issues of great public policy and consumer welfare relevance, this track seeks to conduct research on how consumers respond to both current and pending legislation as well as other related actions on the part of firms. These efforts are aimed at identifying ways to nudge consumers towards healthier decisions.

Goals of the Session

This track’s team is comprised of researchers who have all conducted research related to the provision of nutrition information and health claims in a variety of academic fields, including marketing, public policy, health economics, and medicine. Combining these perspectives will lead to new specific questions and research not previously conducted. A series of key questions focused on menu labeling will guide our efforts including: What nutritional information is the most impactful and for whom? How do consumers respond to changes in menu offerings including options viewed as healthier and varying portion sizes in the context of menu calorie labels? What prevents consumers from making healthier choices in spite of additional information? What information besides calories may impact decision making?

To achieve these research goals, the scholars in this track are working together to combine insights from prior research in various disciplines and identify the most meaningful and actionable gaps. Prior to the TCR conference, the research team plans to collect initial (primary) data. If possible, the team plans to conduct some preliminary analyses of data before the TCR conference; in addition, the conference session itself provides an opportunity to analyze data and develop plans for additional data collection. During the TCR session, the goal is also to further refine the research project, and develop an agenda for additional future research beyond the empirical piece we will work on pre-, during, and post-TCR. Accordingly, prior to the conference, each member of our team will focus on enriching different aspects of our conceptual framework, based on their specific area of expertise.

The intended outcome from the TCR session will be a detailed outline for our first manuscript from this project and the design of additional experimental studies.

Organization of Pre, During, and Post Conference Activities

Pre-Conference Organizing Plans

The team will be working together to lay the ground work for an empirical investigation. Here are planned tasks:

  • Literature review (December 2016-January 2017): The team reviews existing literature on consumer food decision making in response to calorie and other health based labeling within consumer and marketing research (e.g., transformative consumer research) and outside of marketing (e.g., economics, public policy, medicine). The team will benefit tremendously from having a diverse set of scholars spanning multiple disciplines.
  • Identification of most pressing issues and development of conceptual framework (January –February 2017): The team reviews existing literature on consumer food decision making in response to calorie and other health based labeling within consumer and marketing research (e.g., transformative consumer research) and outside of marketing (e.g., economics, public policy, medicine).
  • Study development (January–February 2017): The team develops 1-2 experimental studies to test identified gaps in the current literature and test theoretical framework.
  • Submission of IRB application (February-April 2017): Submission of initial materials (after initial approval, we will prepare for a potential revision of IRB-related materials, as the specific research questions emerge; we will then submit modified materials to the IRB, to get approval of the revised materials).
  • Data collection (tentative schedule February–May 2017): The team plans to launch an initial wave of data collection in the Spring of 2017, followed by a second wave in late summer of 2017 (i.e., after the TCR conference).

During the TCR Conference

  • The team plans to have experiment/field experiment data from initial data collection to review and use to develop plans for the next wave of data collection, with the goal of setting up a field study to test specific restaurant menu labeling formats and/or interventions.
  • In light of the results / insights generated from the data, we will also design Wave 2 of the data collection.
  • The outcome we hope to achieve at the TCR conference is to finalize a detailed outline for the first manuscript resulting from this project.
  • The other outcome we hope to achieve at the conference includes identification of additional important issues related to our investigation that will serve as a basis for other future research.

After the TCR Conference

  • The team plans to have a working paper ready to submit to a top-tier marketing journal within 10 – 14 weeks.

Chairs

Kelly Haws

Vanderbilt University

Peggy Liu

University of Pittsburgh

References

  1. Wansink, B., and J. Sobal. 2007. Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior 39 (1): 106–123.