By the beginning of December 2016, American restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets are expected to list the amount of calories for each item on their menu. Some overachievers have already started calorie labeling. A recent study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has revealed that chain restaurants that voluntarily list calorie counts on their menus average around 140 fewer calories per menu item compared to restaurants waiting for 2016.

"The menu items in restaurants with voluntary labeling have fewer average calories than restaurants without labeling," said Julia A. Wolfson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, in a statement. "If other chain restaurants follow this same trend once mandatory menu labeling goes into effect, it could significantly improve the restaurant environment for consumers. This could get consumers to eat healthier without having to change their behavior, something that is a very difficult thing to do and sustain."

Wolfson and her colleagues gathered data from 2012 to 2014 using MenuStat — a data set developed by the New York Department of Public Health and Hygiene that is based on the sales of menu items at 66 of the 100 largest chain restaurants in the United States. Five of the 66 chains have introduced calorie counts on menus ahead of the December 2016 start date, including Panera and Jamba Juice in 2010, McDonald’s in 2012, and Chick-fil-A and Starbucks in 2013.

Chains that voluntarily listed their calorie counts averaged around 140 fewer calories per menu item compared to chains that have not started calorie labeling as of yet. The average menu item at chains that posted their calorie counts in 2012 was 260 calories compared to 399 calories among those that did not calorie label. In 2014, those numbers climbed to 263 and 402 calories. The research team confirmed that differences in calorie counts represented more lower-calorie food as opposed to beverages.

"The biggest impact from mandatory menu labeling may come from restaurants decreasing the calories in their menu items rather than expecting consumers to notice the calorie information and, subsequently, order different menu items." Wolfson added. "Given how often Americans eat in restaurants, if more chain restaurants decrease calories on their menus to a level that we are seeing in restaurants that already label, this has the potential to reduce population-level obesity."

Although a number of recent studies have suggested that listing calories on the menus of chain restaurants does not impact how many calories we consume, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that one-third of the average American’s daily caloric intake comes from outside of the home. Researchers from this new study also found that restaurants willing to list calories introduced twice as many new menu items in 2013 and one-third as many in 2014 compared to other chains. If calorie counts aren’t working on customers, perhaps they are working on the restaurants.

Source: Block J, Jarlenski M, Bleich S, Wolfson J. Restaurants With Calories Displayed On Menus Had Lower Calorie Counts Compared to Restaurants Without Such Labels. Health Affairs. 2015.