CHICAGO ? How US consumers will react to seeing calories on menus remains to be seen, as the US Food and Drug Administration readies to submit its proposed regulations for the federal menu labeling law by the March 23 deadline. Calorie information on menus will most likely have little long-term effect on consumer ordering patterns, according to The NPD Group.

Affecting restaurant chains with 20 or more units, which are expected to implement the federal menu labeling law in late 2012, requires chain restaurants to display calories for standard menu items, as well as calories for each serving of food at salad bars or buffet lines. This law will preempt a number of state and local menu labeling laws already in effect in places like New York City, California and Philadelphia.

NPD conducted a survey among adults ages 18 and older as part of a recent study entitled “Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat” to help restaurant operators in gauging consumers’ response to calorie postings on menus. Panelists were asked to indicate items they would order from two formats of a typical fast-food hamburger restaurant menu. The first exposure was to a typical menu board without calorie information while the second exposure was to the same menu board -- but with calorie counts shown alongside the price of each item. Before and after ordering patterns were next compared.

Although consumers ordered items that amounted to fewer calories after viewing the menu with the calories posted, the difference in calories was relatively small. The average number of calories ordered when calories were posted was 901, compared to 1,021 when calories were not posted. Consumers also ordered about the same number of items when calories were posted, the study also found. They ordered, on average, 3.3 when calories weren’t posted, versus 3.2 when they were.

“Calories aren’t the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst and author of the report. “We found through our research that quality, as in fresh, natural, and nutritious, is the most important healthy eating attribute when they dine out.”

Consumers seeing calories on menus did cause a decrease in the order of foods that were already declining in terms of restaurant servings, such as one-third-lb. hamburgers, some chicken sandwiches and more. However, NPD found the calorie postings increased orders for other foods, such as regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers and grilled chicken wraps.

Menus listing calories also affected how much consumers spent. Average checks for lunch and dinner declined slightly, from $6.40 when calories were absent to $6.20 when calories were disclosed.

“The takeaway for restaurant chains is that, in the short term, we expect consumers may react to calorie labeling with some shift in foods/beverages ordered, but expect that old behaviors will return in time,” says Riggs. “Operators may want to plan for some initial shift in product mix when the new menus are presented to consumers.Lower-calorie sides might be highlighted or promoted when the menu change is made, which could assist in keeping order sizes and check sizes up.”

Source: The NPD Group/Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat report