Menu Calorie Counts More Effective When Listed To The Left Of Food

As of yesterday yesterday, the days of blissfully inhaling a Big Mac without acknowledging its caloric wallop are gone. Fast-food and other restaurants and grocery store to-go areas are now required to post calorie counts in order to comply with an Obama-era policy. Most restaurants do this by listing the menu item (a slice of pepperoni pizza, say) followed by the calories (too many).

But a new study that will soon be published in the Journal Of Consumer Psychology suggests that this isn't the most effective way to display calorie counts. The researchers from New York University, Duke, and University Of Pittsburgh, found that listing calorie counts before the name of a menu item encouraged customers to choose less-caloric dishes. They hypothesized that when a person reads the food name first—mmm, pepperoni pizza—they're already thinking about how great that slice is going to taste, placing less importance on the calories listed thereafter.

But when calorie counts are listed first from left to right, the way Americans read, researchers found customers chose meals with 28.4 percent fewer calories compared to diners who chose from a menu without calorie information. When calories are listed to the right of dishes, people ordered only 5.4 percent fewer calories. Summarizing their findings at Stat News, the study's authors write: "Decades of psychological research showing that the first piece of information one reads usually receives disproportionate weight in subsequent decisions... The intuition is that a consumer may already be leaning toward a cheeseburger before getting a chance to consider the calorie information, thus minimizing its effect on what he or she orders."

To double-check their theory, another study was conducted with Hebrew-speaking Israelis, who read from right to left. In that scenario, calorie counts presented to the right ("in front," to those who read Hebrew) led to a preference for less-caloric meals.

It's a simple finding, but one that could majorly impact how visual menus are designed. As the study's authors point out, calorie labelling has until this point proven "disappointing" in affecting consumer behavior. Maybe the fix is as simple as moving numbers to the left.