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Why Knowing the Calorie Count of Fast-Food Menu Items Doesn’t Lead to Healthier Choices

March 04, 2017

Whether you love a Big Mac, Frosty or five-piece chicken tenders, it turns out that knowing how many calories are in these fast-food items won’t stop you from eating them, according to one recent study.

In the study, published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, New York University (NYU) researchers used data collected in Philadelphia — a city where calorie labeling went into effect in 2008 — to determine how this approach affected people’s choices at fast-food restaurants. They reviewed responses from 699 customers who completed surveys at the time they purchased their meal at 15 fast-food eateries throughout the city. Researchers also reviewed data from 702 phone surveys with Philadelphia residents.

Does Calorie Labeling Lead to Better Food Choices?

The researchers used a framework that included five criteria to measure the impact of calorie labeling:

  • Consumers must be aware of the labeling.
  • Consumers must be motivated to eat healthy.
  • Consumers must know the number of calories they should eat every day to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Labeling must provide information that differs from consumers’ expectations of the calories in these foods.
  • Labeling must reach regular fast-food consumers.

Researchers found that very few of those surveyed met all five marks. They found that only 8 percent of consumers surveyed at the time of purchase and 16 percent of those surveyed by phone would be more likely to make healthier choices because of calorie labeling at fast-food restaurants.

About 33 percent of phone survey respondents didn’t see calorie labels posted at all and nearly two-thirds surveyed in-store didn’t notice them either. What this tells us is that restaurants could do a better job of making this information visible, but consumers also need to be more conscious. At the same time, if someone frequents a fast-food restaurant in the first place, it may be difficult to change his or her eating habits.

In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort on the part of health officials to help consumers make healthier choices. Last year, the FDA announced it was changing the nutritional labels on packaged foods to reflect how Americans actually eat. The changes include increasing the average serving size on nutrition labels, adding details on the amount of added sugars in these products and larger font on the labeling so that nutrition information is more visible to consumers.

This consumer education trend isn’t just taking place in grocery stores. Beginning on May 5, fast-food restaurants with more than 20 locations will have to put calorie counts on their menus, too. To make this information more visible, NYU researchers also suggest making the labeling larger and adding a noticeable color and clearer signage so consumers don’t miss these details before they order. They also suggest adding information about daily calorie intake and clarifying for consumers that 2,000 calories is just the recommended daily allowance and that this figure varies for each person. Previous studies have shown that consumers respond well to these approaches and to information about how much exercise it would take to burn off these calories, NYU researchers said.

This new requirement needs to be effective because obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S. More than 2 in 3 American adults are considered overweight or obese and about one-third of children age 6 to 19 are in the same category. Everyone has free will, but we have to encourage people and help them make better food choices. Fast-food isn’t going anywhere, but providing calorie count information hopefully will push consumers to think twice before they order a high-fat, high-salt or high-sugar item on the menu, or at the very least reduce how often they visit these restaurants. If these changes push fast-food restaurants to add healthier items to their menus, that would be a big win for consumers, too, and ultimately could help us reverse the trend of increasing obesity rates in this country. 

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