Do consumers care about calories?

Research commissioned by Marketing Week shows people welcome calorie and nutritional content on fast food good news for brands wanting to help stem ’the tide of obesity’. But their stance must be informative, not preachy.

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British people need to cut their food intake by 100 calories a day, warned health secretary Andrew Lansley as he called for businesses and brands to help tackle the “tide of obesity” in the UK earlier this month. But it seems consumers may not be on board, as just 13% think the healthiness of their meal is most important when choosing fast food, according to a report by Lightspeed Research commissioned by Marketing Week.

Despite this lack of enthusiasm for cutting back, some fast food brands are trying to help by being transparent about the calorific content of their meals. In September, McDonald’s began displaying the calorie content of its burgers and fries on its menu boards, while KFC says it will offer this information in all stores by December (see The Frontline, below).

Although consumers do not seem to prioritise healthiness when choosing food, 75% of people believe adding calorific content to menus is a positive move. Forty-eight per cent believe it is an excellent idea. Young consumers are most keen, with 92% of 18to 34-year-olds agreeing that the McDonald’s move would be helpful to them.

Overall, 73% of the 1,000 fast food customers questioned in the research say they have switched products based on knowing how many calories there are in a meal or food item, so having the calorie count displayed in-store might get people to change their eating habits.

The bad news for brands keen to be more transparent about calories, however, is that 80% of women have changed their mind about buying an item because of its nutritional information, with almost half admitting they would probably or definitely be put off certain foods if the calorie count appears too high.

Lightspeed EMEA marketing director Ralph Risk says: “Historically, women are generally more focused on healthy things than men. But about 38% of men agree it is an excellent idea for McDonald’s to display calories, which is quite high.”

Although women may be more conscious of their intake than men, they are not put off fast food brands by the idea of calorie labelling 59% say they would have a more positive view of restaurants that do this. Fifty-three per cent of total respondents agree with this, while 47% of men say it would have no influence on what they think of a brand.

“There is an overwhelming positivity to the display of calories on menus. It may not affect everyone’s purchasing behaviour, but they like the fact they can have the information and could make their own decisions. However, they don’t want to be preached to,” says Risk.

JD Wetherspoon senior food development manager Jameson Robinson agrees: “It is not our job to tell people how many calories they should consume or how much exercise they should take but it is our responsibility to provide information so they can make informed decisions.”

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Food facts on the menu: As well as offering healthier options, JD Wetherspoon plans to put calorie data on its menus from spring

People may like to be informed about calories but taste far outweighs any other factor when deciding what they want to eat from a takeaway or fast food outlet. Forty-two per cent of people cite taste and 24% cost as the most important factors; 13% say it is how healthy the food is.

“If you want to go for a Big Mac or Whopper because you like the taste, you are probably going to accept the fact that it might have more calories than if you cooked it yourself, but you accept it because you want it,” says Risk.

How food tastes is more important for 55to 64-year-olds than it is for those aged 54 and under, and the older age group also considers the healthiness of the food more than others. Ten per cent of 18to 34-year-olds say having healthy food is key to their choices, compared with 16% of 55to 64-year-olds.

In line with this importance given to health, 42% of 55to 64-year-olds say they are quite likely to review the calories of items before making a decision on what to buy or eat. Just over a fifth of the people in this group also say they would definitely be put off buying something if they thought the calorie count was too high.

“This makes sense for older people. As you get into that age bracket, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is probably more important because your body takes longer to recover from things,” says Risk.

Fast food outlets are likely to be more popular with younger people and those in the C2DE demographic, he adds. Just over three-quarters (77%) of those in the ABC1 bracket say they have changed their mind about buying a product because of nutritional information while 67% of C2DEs have done this.

“This group is likely to go for fast food on a more regular basis than those who are ABC1s. When people are going out on impulse or after they’ve had a drink, it might be that calories are not the first thing on their minds.”

Marketers from fast food brands and other types of food outlets claim they are happy to display nutritional information as it helps consumers make choices. KFC vice-president of marketing for the UK and Ireland Jennelle Tilling explains: “We understand that all food companies have a role to play in improving the health of the nation, so we are happy to be involved in the Department of Health’s responsibility deal.”

In areas where calorie counts are established parts of packaging, such as supermarkets, consumers are already familiar with choosing food based on nutritional values. Nearly a third (31%) of people say they check this information most of the time and 35% say they do so sometimes.

Risk says this familiarity with calorie labels on packaging is helpful for the government’s agenda. “There are two ways brands have to address the unhealthy aspect of society. One is education and giving information and the other is providing healthier options,” he says.

“Brands that want to take advantage of people’s nature and understanding of the nutritional value of their food would be wise to provide information and educate without having to dictate. Rather than it seeming like a nanny state, having the information in an understandable to see format will be the way forward, and we are seeing that already.”

The frontline

We ask marketers on the front line whether our ’trends’ research matches their experience on the ground

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Jennelle Tilling

Vice-president of marketing

KFC UK & Ireland

As the research shows, calorie labelling is already affecting consumers’ choice of brand. We believe it’s just a matter of time before calories on menus become the norm and consumers will expect all brands in the quick-service and casual dining sectors to do it.

We’ve had a very positive response to our roll-out of calorie labelling. It’ll be in all our restaurants by December. We understand that all food companies have a role to play in improving the health of the nation, so we were happy to get involved in the Department of Health’s responsibility deal.

Calorie labelling on menus is a natural step for us as we have provided detailed nutritional information online and on tray liners in our restaurants for several years. While most customers visit us for a treat, providing calorie information helps those who want to keep track of what they eat.

The information will be provided at point-of-sale on menu boards, in the same size font as the names of the products.

We will be carrying out our own research, but we know from anecdotal evidence that customers are pleasantly surprised that something like our fillet burger has only 459 calories similar to many high street sandwiches.

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Jameson Robinson

Senior food development manager

JD Wetherspoon

For several years we’ve provided detailed nutritional information in a leaflet available in every pub and on our website, and we ensure we have a balanced menu. But this information needs to be at the point of order.

We are planning to list calories on next year’s spring menu and have set up a programme with suppliers to reduce calories, saturated fat and salt in over 20 products. We have also tested putting calories on menus in pubs in one area, which proved successful. We wanted to see what the impact on sales patterns would be. There wasn’t a significant change in what people chose, but there was a bit more interest in the healthier dishes.

We’ve tried to develop new healthy dishes that also have mainstream appeal, such as sweet chilli noodles which are a big seller. We also have a ’superfood’ salad.

But there are some things on our menu that are intrinsically indulgent our chocolate fudge cake, for example. We’ve sold over 12 million portions of it over the past 10 years and we’ve decided not to mess around with the recipe after having conversations with customers. It is what it is a treat.

People do appreciate [calorific] information as long as you are not too preachy or forceful. Nutritional information is never going to be the key message [for us] but it has to be there. It’s our responsibility to provide information so they can make informed decisions.

If a food service operator fails to provide this kind of information at the point of ordering, a consumer probably has a right to wonder what they are hiding.

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Trevor Haynes

Area development manager for the UK and Ireland

Subway

Subway stores recognise the importance to our customers not only of providing calorie counts but other nutritional information too.

Information including calories, salt, fat, saturated fat and sugar per six-inch sub has been available in our 1,500 stores across the UK and Ireland at the point of choice for almost two years. The information is displayed on the glass counter front as well as on our website.

We have also recently conducted trials to establish the most effective way of displaying calorie information in our stores. Results from this are now being analysed, with a view to providing additional calorie information.

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Alastair Macrow

UK vice-president of food and marketing

McDonald’s

We have been providing nutritional information since 1984. It’s great to see such a positive response from this research towards displaying calories, as customers will now be able to see this information on menu boards in our restaurants.

We carried out two pieces of consumer research on displaying calorie information in 2009 and it’s encouraging that elements of this research echo what we found.

For example, the particular enthusiasm for menu board labelling among women aged over 25 and that 48% of people think this is an excellent idea is also supported by the trial we carried out in 125 restaurants.

Our customers visit us about twice a month, so what they eat in our restaurants is part of a range of other things they consume on the high street. People therefore have a definite idea of what they intend to purchase and the majority of customers will stick with that.

For those who may change their mind, we’ve committed to introducing choice on our menus. It’s great that your research also emphasises consumers’ support for choice and transparency across the high street.

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