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.