The Au Bon Pain on the corner of Elm and Broadway may be a popular place for Elis to gather over a meal, but a new Yale study says that few actually bother to access nutritional information about the food they purchase there.
Earlier this month, Yale researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released the results of an observational study conducted at several fast food locations, showing that only 6 out of 4,311 — or 0.1 percent — patrons looked at nutritional information before they ordered. The study’s authors suggested fast food restaurants display nutritional information more prominently.
“Why not make it easier for people to make a better decision?” Christina Roberto GRD ’12, the lead researcher on the study, said. “Customers have a right to know.”
Data for the study was collected at four restaurants — McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain — in both urban and suburban areas in New York City and Connecticut. The researchers counted the number of customers who read on-premises nutritional information available on posters, pamphlets or computer terminals in the restaurants, and compared this to the overall number of customers who purchased food.
“This information is close to useless if no one accesses it,” Henry Agnew ’09, a psychology major who collected data, said.
Roberto explained that the idea for the study originated in a long-standing dispute about the way menus should be presented. Restaurants, she said, argue that they make nutritional information readily available as pamphlets or posters for customers, making prominent displays unnecessary and costly.
But David Katz, an associate professor in public health practice, said restaurants are not concerned primarily with the health of their customers. He added that it is the responsibility of public health officials to keep restaurants honest.
Katz said he believes government legislation should mandate prominent display signs, whether or not consumers indicate they want the information.
“I don’t think it is a matter of whether or not consumers want to know,” Katz said. “I think the better question is, should the consumer know? My answer to that is absolutely they should know. Even those people who say they don’t want to see how bad it is for them should know.”
But Debbie Humphries, a clinical instructor in public health, said polls and studies show that the majority of consumers do want to know nutritional information. There needs to be a balance, she said, between displaying the information customers need and the information they want. The Yale study, Humpries added, does not provide information about the extent to which customers want nutritional information.
“It implies that the problem is much simpler than it is,” Humphries said of the study.
Katz agreed, explaining customers do not want all the nutritional information about what they eat, but rather a quick overview of its healthiness. He suggests displaying a number next to each food item that takes into account its nutrients in a calculation of its overall healthiness. Already used in some supermarkets, such a measure would be an inexpensive, simple way of providing sufficient information, he said.
“The next step is to do a preventive study where we put what we think is sufficient information, like this number, up and see if it changes how people order,” said Katz. “The hard part is cooperating with McDonald’s and other franchises. These numbers are meant to display the truth — not make them look good.”
This study will appear in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health.