5.272010

the problem with menu labeling

The new laws popping up which require restaurants to post calorie counts next to food listings have me concerned. This may come as a surprise to those who know me – after all, I am a fitness enthusiast and I try to practice healthy eating.   So the nutritional content of food is really important to me.

But I just don’t agree with the menu labeling laws.  Here are my reasons why I think they’re bad for business:

1.    where to draw the line?

Most laws currently require the posting of calorie counts only.  But if you know anything about food, you know that calorie counts can be very misleading.  Not all calories are created equal.  Calories from protein are generally good; calories from sugar and fat are generally not.  Calories from good fats are OK; bad fats, not so much.  By limiting the nutritional information required to calories alone, lawmakers are actually doing a disservice to the people they’re trying to serve.

But, on the other hand, if you don’t put a limit to the nutritional information required, information overload is bound to happen.  “Nutrition Facts” labels might work on packaged foods but they’re not sensible for restaurant menus.

Below is the nutritional information menu provided to every guest at PF Chang’s – it’s 5 pages long and the data is overwhelming, even to someone like me.

pfchangs

So where do we draw the line?  Who’s to say that milligrams of salt should be disclosed but grams of fat shouldn’t?  Or whether or not grams of fiber should be broken out from total grams of carbohydrates? There’s no clear delineation.

Now, I’m the last person who says that just because something is difficult, it shouldn’t be done. (I love challenges and place tremendous value on perseverance.) That’s not what I’m saying here.  Rather, the difficulty of doing this actually points to the fact that it shouldn’t be done.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be determining what nutritional information is important enough to warrant being called out on a menu. The consumer should be the one who determines the right information for him or her.

PSAs can be deployed to educate the public on the value of different information and restaurants should make detailed nutritional information available to anyone who seeks it out — but the decision should be rest with the consumer.

My second reason for concern over menu labeling laws is related to the first.

2.    respect for the consumer

Regulating restaurants in an attempt to try to get people to eat healthy is like mandating that television networks tell people to cut back on TV watching because it’s detrimental to their mental development or requiring companies which make alcoholic products to tell consumers that drinking is bad.  There are no such laws because these points just aren’t true.

Eating at restaurants, even fast food ones, is not an inherently bad behavior – it’s only dangerous when it is done in excess.  Consumers know this and we should have enough respect for them to let them make their own decisions.

I don’t say this from a Libertarian point of view – I say it from a brand one.  Companies want to have authentic, trusting relationships with their customers – this is only possible if companies exhibit behaviors which demonstrate respect for them.

So again restaurants should make nutritional information available to people, but they shouldn’t force feed it to them as if to suggest they’re not capable of making smart decisions on their own.

3.    brand-building

Restaurants fill customers’ needs and desires for convenient meal solutions, or for treats, or for access different products and tastes – and in some cases, for healthy foods.  Good brands know their target customers well enough to know want they want and need — and know what and how to communicate with them in order to meet those needs.

If a restaurant is trying to appeal to a discrete segment of consumers who care about nutritional information, the restaurant’s communications touchpoints – whether menus, brochures, websites, whatever — will reflect this.  But if such consumers are not part of the brand’s target audience, then the company shouldn’t be forced to clutter its communication with irrelevant messaging.

Focused and streamlined messaging is an essential tenet of brand-building. No law or regulation should require that a restaurant violate it.

I’m sure there are many who disagree with my concerns and I’d like to hear from you.  Please let me know your reactions to what I’ve said.

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