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May 2011

Are Calorie Counts on Fast-food Restaurant Menus Making a Difference?

Junk food

Now that many chain restaurants are required to post calorie and fat content on their menus, consumers must be thinking twice about ordering that 870-calorie burger or that 600-calorie shake, right? Apparently not, according to new research that suggests that consumers are unfazed and undeterred by the high-calorie counts of their favorite fast foods.

Researchers from New York University and Yale were curious to see how New York City’s new law requiring restaurant chains to post calorie counts on menus would affect consumer purchases. The first city to require calorie posting, New York City has since been followed by California and Seattle, among others, in mandating that chain restaurants post calorie counts directly on menus, with the intent that doing so will help consumers make healthier—and more informed—food choices.

The study, published in the online journal Health Affairs and led by Dr. Brian Elbel, assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine, tracked consumer purchases at four fast-food chains in primarily poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York City. Similar neighborhoods in Newark, where calories are not listed on menus, were used as a control group. More than 1,100 receipts were collected directly from customers at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken for six weeks, beginning two weeks before the law took effect until four weeks after. In New York City, orders averaged 825 calories before the law took effect; this value increased to 846 calories after the calorie counts were posted. In Newark, calorie counts remained at about 825 calories for the length of the study period.

While about half the New York City customers said they noticed the posted information on calories, only about 28 percent of those indicated that it influenced their choices. Clearly, as Elbel told The New York Times, labels are not enough to influence people to make better food choices, particularly among low-income populations where the cost of food may be more important than its nutritional value. And two additional studies, one from researchers at Stanford University and the other from Duke—NUS Medical School, came to similar conclusions. The Stanford study reviewed sales data from New York City Starbucks locations, and found that posting calorie counts resulted in just a 14-calorie drop in food choice, and didn’t affect drink purchases at all. Duke researchers looked at food choices at Taco Time franchises in West Seattle (where a mandatory calorie-posting law had recently passed), and found no differences. “Trends in transactions and calories per transaction did not vary between control and intervention locations after the law was enacted,” researchers wrote in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Still, many health officials continue to support calorie posting on menus, and suggest that this study was conducted too soon after the law went into effect, and that it will likely take longer to have a significant impact on people’s behavior.



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