Calorie counts on fast food menus not changing eating habits

Researchers found a decreasing number of customers notice the caloric information, while average calories per meal have increased since requiring restaurants to post the numbers on menu boards.
By Stephen Feller  |  Nov. 3, 2015 at 5:36 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Although some customers read and consider calorie information for meals at fast food restaurants, the extra information appears to have not affected people's eating habits, according to a new study.

Researchers at New York University sought to find the effect, if any, of New York City instituting a requirement for fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC and Burger King to include caloric information on menu boards at their locations.

In a survey in 2008, just after the requirements were put into effect, researchers at NYU surveyed restaurant customers and found roughly half noticed the calorie counts and just one in 10 customers were influenced to opt for lower-calorie food -- numbers which have dropped in the years since.

The new survey suggests challenges to how successful the tactic will be to combat obesity, researchers said, as the caloric information requirement was included in the Affordable Care Act and will be introduced nationwide in December.

"Our study suggests that menu labeling, in particular at fast-food restaurants, will not on its own lead to any lasting reductions in calories consumed," said Dr. Brian Elbel, a researcher at NYU's Langone Medical Center, in a press release.

Researchers reviewed cash register receipts and survey responses for 7,699 patrons at the same four fast food chains as the 2008 survey when the caloric information was first introduced.

In 2013, the researchers reported 45 percent of respondents said they noticed the calorie counts, a six-point drop from 2008. Six months later, surveys showed 41 percent noticed them, and in 2014 the percentage of consumers noticing calorie information dropped to 37 percent.

When considering specific food selections, researchers said calorie counts in the new analysis averaged between 804 and 839 calories at restaurants with the information and between 802 and 857 at those without the information. These are increases over 2008, when meals averaged 783 calories at restaurants with caloric information and 756 calories at those without.

"People are at least reading the information, some are even using it," Elbel said. "Labels may yet work at non-fast-food, family-style restaurant chains, or for specific groups of people with a greater need than most to consume fewer calories and eat more healthily. We will have to wait and see, while continuing to monitor and analyze the policy's impact."

The study is published in Health Affairs.

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