Providing smaller portion options could do more to curb calorie consumption in restaurants than the now-widespread approach of posting nutrition information on menus, according to a new study.
Research has yet to prove that menu labeling significantly changes restaurant patrons’ behavior, noted the new study’s authors, Janet Schwartz, Jason Riis, Brian Elbel and Dan Ariely. To test an alternative, they arranged to have a Panda Express on an unidentified college campus in Durham, N.C. offer smaller portion of three sides described by the researchers as “starchy.”
Several variables were studied. In some instances, a 25-cent discount was offered for the smaller-sized portions. In others, nutrition info was provided for the items.
To see if an aversion to wasting food figured into customers’ decisions, the researchers weighed what customers ordered but didn’t eat.
Regardless of the price, more than one in 10 patrons opted for the smaller portion, according to a summary of the research posted on HealthAffairs, a website devoted to healthcare policy issues. In some instances, a third of the customers chose the smaller sides.
The researchers noted that patrons opting for the reduced portions weren’t merely skimping on sides to load up on other foods. On average, they were served 200 fewer calories.
Posting nutritional information had no effect on calorie consumption, the researchers concluded. “If anything, the downsizing offer was less effective in changing customers’ ordering patterns with the calorie labeling present,” the researchers wrote.
They also saw no difference in how much food was left uneaten, which indicates that patrons ate the whole serving, small or regular-sized.
These findings highlight the potential importance of portion-control interventions that specifically activate consumers’ self-control.