New federal menu-labeling rules for restaurants with 20 or more locations go into effect May 7 but a Virginia Tech expert says the requirement to prominently display calorie counts doesn’t do enough to help consumers make healthy eating choices.

“Customers do not know how calorie information translates into physical activity,” said Eojina Kim, an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management who has published research on the topic. “Therefore, providing ‘visual tips’ can be helpful and allow customers’ faster information processing.”

It would be more effective if the eateries included physical activity-based labeling – a logo showing that one breaded chicken sandwich is equal to 63 minutes of running, for instance, Kim’s research shows.

While Kim’s eye-tracking study, published in the March 2018 International Journal of Hospitality Management, used “running time” as a comparison, restaurateurs could consider other physical activities such as walking, swimming, bicycling, and yoga so that customers can easily match the information with a particular athletic style. 

“Considering the limited space on table menus or menu boards, restaurants could consider incorporating such labeling on digital channels, including digital boards, tablet menus boards, kiosk-based ordering, and others such devices,” said Kim.

Going beyond what the new rules require will not just help customers make healthy choices but it could lead to increased business for the restaurants who do it the best.

Restaurateurs can take the initiative in creating a healthy eating environment,” said Kim. “The food service business could take this as an opportunity to become socially responsible, rather than viewing the rules as simply troublesome compliance.

“Restaurants who do it well could gain a more positive brand image leading to customers’ trust and loyalty.” 

About Kim

Eojina Kim is an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. Her research focuses on: consumer behaviors; food safety and nutrition policy development spanning commercial and nonprofit foodservice sectors; and service management in the foodservice industry.

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