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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 02/18/2011

Is that right? Menu calorie labels can curb obesity?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

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?

Today's poll:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | February 18, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food labeling, Is That Right?, Nutrition and Fitness, Parenting  
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A recent study showed that listing the calories mada no difference to what people ordered. MAny Europeans are surprised to see the listing of calories in USA fast food stores.

The bottom line is taste, people buy what they want to eat. A weight and diabetes diet in Europe has been working well based on letting you eat what you like not calories

Posted by: healing1 | February 18, 2011 7:40 AM | Report abuse

Interesting. The poll disagree with the article! I am very thin and do watch what I eat. That is why I noticed the calories on the menus. Those who do not watch what they eat are less likely to notice. This is called common sense. In order for the calories listings to reduce obesity, the obese people need to read it.
Here's an idea, how about the government minding it's own business?

Posted by: hebe1 | February 18, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I don't know that kids/teenagers are the best population for this study. It's pretty well established that most teenagers don't have the same capacity for long-range thinking as adults do.

Posted by: subrosa77 | February 18, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

What the study can't tell us is whether the calorie counts lead people to eat in the restaurant fewer times. Maybe when we do go to McD's, we get meal X. But with the calorie counts, we'll go to McD's once per month instead of once per week. So overall, the calorie labels would help. It is the government's business to promote healthy eating, because of the huge costs of treating illnesses that could be prevented with healthy lifestyles.

Posted by: drl97 | February 18, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Knowing the value in a hamburger with fries will not make me suddenly want bulgur wheat. I know going in about the values because I eat similar foods regularly. Let my belly go!

Posted by: jbeeler | February 18, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I have several questions you may wish to consider.

1. Don't teenagers have a different caloric requirement than adults?

2. Where are the data supporting the premise that thin people are healthier than people of normal (or over) weight?

3. By what process was the "safe" range of BMI determined? After all, human beings aren't born with placards designating their "normal" weight. How do we know that weights that are considered too high or obese are not actually "normal" for the species on average?

Posted by: edwardharrigan | February 18, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I have to watch my intake of sodium so I am 100 percent for public access to this nutritional information. And to all these people who are against the government requiring this, have you looked at the nutritional information on restaurant food lately? I swear they must use syringes to inject fat and salt into the food.

Posted by: duhneese | February 18, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Comrades: 80% of the votes say that nutritional info guides their choices at a fast-food feeding? I submit that 95% of those voters are lying. In the clutch, while standing in line, smelling the refried grease and salt vapors, and drooling over the taste sensation just moments away, detailed info is lost in the frenzy of feeding. Hypochrites, all . . . Maybe the Pew research consortium can share some sanity on the veracity of the question and responses to it. Pew ALWAYS seems to have the money and wherewithall to fulfill its nanny tasking . . . Please, Pew, testify!!!!

Posted by: rep15 | February 18, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I don't think we need worry about this- very few of patients who come to me try to read labels and when they do,they don't know how or what the given information means to them, and end up more confused than anything. I literally give lessons in label-reading. Once people know what to look for and understand how this information relates to their overall nutrition, they read labels as part of a coherent strategy.
In fact, any single measure outside of a conscious strategy will remain anecdotal

Posted by: dre3 | February 18, 2011 7:08 PM | Report abuse

These labels may be of some help to those motivated to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, but for poorer teenager and adults, there's no effect. Once they've made the decision to go into a fast food joint, the small difference in calories between a Big Mac and a Quarter-Pounder doesn't matter. Let's face it, these labels will not reduce childhood or teenage obesity.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | February 18, 2011 9:06 PM | Report abuse

With prices going up everywhere, fast food is usually the cheapest food - so calories seldom enter into the equation.

Most of the bad calories are found in the drink instead of the burger and fries. The High Fructose Corn Syrup found in soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi are what really make you fat.

It is what you eat at home is what really matters. Try to get as much fiber as possible from whole wheat, bananas, avocados, raisins, peanut butter, bean soup and veggies. Substitute honey for sugar. Homemade soup is one of the best ways to stay healthy and avoid obesity.

Posted by: alance | February 18, 2011 10:06 PM | Report abuse

Companies do give out samples. They are looking to put their products in potential consumers' hands. They wouldn't do it if it didn't work one of the place that always worked is "123 Get Samples" search online

Posted by: deniserollins123 | February 19, 2011 2:31 AM | Report abuse

It bothers me that the blame for fast food is constantly falling on the fast food corporations.

I can see the justification of putting laws in place that ban artificial/chemical ingredients, but in the end each person has to take responsibility for what they consume.

Posted by: Kenna2 | February 19, 2011 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Several years ago, my kids and I frequented McDonalds. Then, they put their nutrition information on a tray liner. My kids had been studying nutrition in school, so we read thru it. The kids were amazed that their french fry order contained more than their DAILY calorie recommendation. We almost never eat fast food now...if we do they ask for Subway. And all are back to normal weight!

Posted by: KM58 | February 22, 2011 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Knowing the calorie content of my burger and fries won't change my mind about them - that's what I go to fast food places to eat. On the other hand, knowing that one meal gives me 65% of the day's calories and 80% of the fat and sodium definitely changes my choices at other meals. The effects of posting nutritional content at fast food chains won't always be directly visible at the checkout counter.

Posted by: macorentyn | February 22, 2011 3:26 PM | Report abuse

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