Is that right? Menu calorie labels can curb obesity?
Offering calorie information on fast-food menus is the law of the land now, with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which among many other things requires fast-food and other chain restaurants to display calorie counts for the foods they sell. The rationale, of course, is that people overeat because they're not aware of how many calories are in a Big Mac, and once they are properly informed they'll choose a salad instead.
But does it really work that way?
Study after study suggests it's not that simple.
The latest, conducted by researchers at New York University and published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that kids and teenagers purchased about the same number of calories' worth of food in their fast-food meals during the periods just before and just after calorie information was added to the menus. Though the sample size was admittedly small -- 349 youngsters -- the young people's preferences were clear. They cared far more about the taste of the food than about how many calories it contained.
The data was collected at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in low-income areas in New York City and Newark, N.J. before and after mandatory labeling began in New York City (but not in Newark).
In short, the kids purchased about the same number of calories' worth of food -- an average of 645 calories -- calorie labels or no calorie labels. The labels did have a bit of an effect on the young people's understanding of how many calories they were purchasing: In New York, 63 percent underestimated the total calories they purchased before labeling went into effect, and 59 percent did so after it went into effect. Those in New York City who underestimated were off by a mean of 466 calories before labeling and 494 after labeling.
The study also revealed that participants weren't terribly clear on the number of calories a healthy adult should consume in a day (about 2,000). The new federal law requires chain restaurants to post that information, too, to help consumers put calorie information about the food they're about to buy into context of their daily diet.
The researchers make clear that their study has limitations, including the small number of participants and the possibility that the data was collected over too short a period for new purchasing habits to take hold. But their work adds to a growing body of evidence calling into question whether posting calories is likely to help much in fighting the nation's obesity problem.
As the new law takes hold nationwide, we'll all be participating in an experiment, this time with an enormous sample size. Whether people will come to use information about the number of calories restaurant foods contain to guide their food choices remains to be seen. In the meantime, might there be a more effective tree to bark up?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
| February 18, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Food labeling, Is That Right?, Nutrition and Fitness, Parenting
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