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First Look: Calories on Fast-Food Menus Don't Change Choices


Remember how requiring fast-food chain restaurants to post calorie counts for food items on their menu boards was supposed to help people make better food choices? If the results of the first study to measure the impact of that initiative are any indication, we might want to rethink the premise.

Researchers reporting in the journal Health Affairs yesterday looked at fast-food purchases made in low-income areas of New York City -- where a menu-labeling law took effect July 18, 2008 -- and, as a control, in nearby Newark, New Jersey, where no such requirement exists.

Comparing purchase receipts and data collected through brief interviews with customers before and after that date, they found that while a little more than half the customers reported they'd noticed the calorie listings, just under 28 percent said the information had influenced their purchase.

The researchers found little difference between the number of calories purchased before and after the law took effect. Actually, the mean number of calories purchased in New York increased slightly, from 825 to 846. Nor did the amounts of saturated fat, sodium or sugar purchased change appreciably after labels were posted.

But that doesn't mean posting calorie totals is worthless, the authors say:

.... our study does not necessarily imply that labeling is an ineffective policy. On the contrary, we found that some subset of consumers used the information to eat more healthfully. Calorie labeling could result in changes that do not rely primarily on alterations in consumers' food choices. Menu labeling regulations may encourage chain restaurants to offer more nutritious or otherwise improved menu offerings, which could be profoundly influential. Public health experts have shown that creating "default" incentives to improve well-being is essential to improving public health. By indirectly influencing restaurants to offer more lower-calorie items, menu labeling regulations could help encourage such default options for consumers. That said, one study has found that simply adding healthier options to a menu can counterintuitively increase the proportion of consumers who purchase less-healthful menu items.

The study offers a half-dozen possible reasons for what appears to have been an unexpected result. Maybe the timing was wrong, or the sample size too small. Maybe, in addition to posting the number of calories for each item, there should have been a sign telling people that 2,000 calories is the most they should consume in a day. Or maybe folks had taken to avoiding restaurants that posted calorie counts, skewing the data.

But the one big maybe goes unmentioned. Maybe people just don't care -- or would prefer to ignore -- the number of calories they're consuming when they eat fast food.

All the other maybes probably can be addressed. That last one, though, is going to take some work. Maybe we should figure it out before too many other jurisdictions jump on the menu-labeling bandwagon.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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Told you so.

Food police must be really, really p!ssed that their attempts to control other people's eating habits are falling on deaf ears.

Not that this study will stop them, because, after all, if you know in your heart that you're smarter and well, just BETTER, than all those dummies who stuff their faces with red meat and HFCS and salt, you won't let anything like empirical facts stand in your way.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | October 7, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

WashingtonDame, you seem to have a high horse of your own - good view from up there?

I live in New York City, and for me, the calorie data have changed my food choices. I only ever eat fast food when I really have a craving, but if that craving can be satisfied by a lower-calorie Dunkin Donut, I'll get the donut instead of a muffin. The calorie counts are also a good reminder that a burger and small fries is more than enough food, I don't need the meal with the medium fries and a soda.

Of course fast food is never a truly healthy option, but even the most dedicated organic-natural-macrobiotic-gluten-free-vegan is at some point going to crave a slice of (soy cheese) pizza.

Posted by: northgs | October 7, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

Did they study what the people ate the rest of the time? Maybe, just maybe, after eating healthy food at home all week, the people want to go out to eat and splurge for one meal.

Posted by: CTguy1 | October 7, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

This is not an excuse to repeal the law. More information always leads to better decisions. What is better, however, is an individual choice.

Posted by: scottilla | October 7, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

This should not have been a suprise. A study done after calorie and other information was required on packaged foods showed that almost no one even read them.
Unfortunately the Food Nazis will not be fazed by reality.

Posted by: bnichols6 | October 7, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

"Actually, the mean number of calories purchased in New York increased slightly, from 825 to 846."

Why wouldn't this be expected? Presumably, one major goal of a poor person in eating at a fast food joint is to spend less money/calorie (i.e., to get more food for your dollar).

By posting calorie counts, it allows the buyer to see which options offer the most calories for the least money, thereby permitting them to make better informed decisions, rather than simply guessing by how "full" a particular item makes them feel.

Posted by: Roger24 | October 7, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

You can post numbers on a menu all day long. It wont matter because most people dont know what they mean or what a healthy diet is. The people that DO know and DO care arent walking into McDonalds in the first place. And we wonder why healthcare is so expensive.

Posted by: svonberg | October 7, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I've found the info useful. I have never been a big fast food fan but I was surprised to find the things I thought were relatively "less" bad, weren't really.

In the end, the real beneficiary of publishing this information will be the fast food companies themselves. Never again will they have to deal with the countless lawsuits from fat, diabetic people who sue them because they "didn't know" that big mac's and fries had lots of calories.

All the data is right there, eat it at your own discretion.

Posted by: Nosh1 | October 7, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Well, duh. People going to McDonald's aren't going because they're worried about calorie counts.

By the way, I don't care if it's a heart attack on a plate, I love me my Filet o' Fish!

Posted by: 7900rmc | October 7, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Classic sample bias. What a bunch of amateurs.

What's likely happening is that those that are concerned about calory counting eat elsewhere when calorie information is available, leaving only people not concerned about calories. A true control study would track the SAME people. Or they could have referred to the enormous body of literature that has accumulated over the decades on how to deal with this problem.

Why even give this piece of garbage study any press?

Posted by: Wallenstein | October 7, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

This has nothing to do with the food police! Grown ups have to make their own choices, but for the people who want to know, the posted information is helpful. People who don't want to know shouldn't look! That said, the study authors shouldn't try to extrapolate conclusions that the data doesn't support.

Posted by: fmjk | October 7, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Must exercise everyday

Posted by: craigspr | October 7, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

It seems like you've overlooked quite a few important factors that this study fails to address.

The most important is that menu labeling has already been shown to spur restaurants to reformulate their recipes so that their items contain less calories on the whole. Whether or not individuals are changing their orders, menu labeling is changing the food landscape and providing a broader array of healthy choices for when we eat out.

Another is that this study was done right after menu labeling took effect in NYC, before the Dept of Health rolled out an extensive education campaign telling people about how many calories they need in a day. To be fair, these researchers should really do some follow up on their work.

Posted by: CaloriesCount | October 8, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

I'm normally a pretty optimistic guy, but in all honesty I don't see how we believed simply posting the nutrition facts on our food would increase the public health. I'm not against it at all, I think it's a good thing to have. I'm pretty big on working out, and I like to look and see how many calories and grams of protein I've consumed on my burger, but I normally stay away from the fries and soda. Humans are creatures of habit, and if one truly wants to change they have to change him/her self. Can't rely on others to improve your health. The man who created Supersize Me, it was a life changing experience for him, he displayed amazing infamous nutrition facts of the largest fastfood chain in the world, yet there was very little to no change in fast food consumption. I'm not saying its impossible to change your habits, I applaud the 28% who have let the nutrition facts influence their choices, but if we truly want to increase the public health we just need something a little more dramatic.

Posted by: stuartcohen18 | October 8, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

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