Background

Calorie labeling is now required on all U.S. chain restaurant menus. Evidence on the effect of calorie labeling on consumer behavior is mixed. We examined the extent to which different parent-targeted messages encouraged parents to order lower-calorie meals for their children in an experimental online setting.

Methods

We conducted a randomized-controlled online experiment with 2,372 socio-demographically diverse primary caregivers of children ages 6–12. Participants were randomized to view one of four focus-group-developed, pilot-tested messages communicating: 1) Sunscreen keeps kids safe (non-food control); 2) Kids’ meals are the right size for children; 3) Doctors recommend a 600-calorie/meal limit for kids; or 4) General recommendation of a 600-calorie/meal limit for kids. Participants ordered hypothetical meals for their children and themselves and rated restaurant meal and message perceptions. We used linear and logistic regression and Wilcoxon rank-sum tests with the Holm-Bonferroni correction to compare outcomes across conditions.

Results

All messages reduced median calories participants ordered for their children from fast food (control/sunscreen message 1: 765 kcal vs. messages 2–4: 650–715 kcal) and full-service menus (control: 1130 kcal vs. messages 2–4: all 970 kcal). However, only the message recommending a general 600-calorie/meal limit (message 4) led to a significant reduction in calories ordered for kids compared to the control (-115 kcal on the fast food menu, p=0.019). Message 4 also had a significantly higher percentage of positive reactions (84%) compared to message 2, which promoted ordering from the kids’ menu (75%, p=0.003).

Conclusions

Parent-targeted messages may increase the effect of calorie labeling. Messages with specific calorie recommendations for kids may be particularly effective at encouraging parents to order lower-calorie restaurant meals for their children. These findings can inform federal and industry-led education campaigns to supplement menu labeling.