Do Menu Calorie Counts Actually Make Us Eat Healthier

By Mike Pomranz |

EMMANUEL DUNAND

By May of next year, new federal regulations will require restaurants with more than 20 locations to post calorie counts on their menus – a rule that will affect most fast food restaurants nationwide. But a new study from New York University suggests that posting calorie counts at fast food joints could cause as little as just eight percent of customers to adjust their eating habits – a finding that led the study’s authors to question whether the change does enough to nudge Americans towards better food choices.

The research, recently published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, specifically focused on people in the Philadelphia area, utilizing data from 2008, collected not long after the city passed regulations requiring calorie counts on fast food menus. Of the 699 people surveyed after eating at a fast food restaurant, only eight percent of respondents “would be expected to change their eating behavior as a result of menu calorie labeling,” wrote NYU’s website. The study also surveyed 702 Philadelphia residents by phone, and this group demonstrated a higher chance of benefiting from the legislation, with 16 percent of respondents suggesting calorie counts might improve their eating habits. However, though this subsection did say they ate fast food at least once a week, they weren’t caught red-handed at a fast food joint like the latter group.

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Interestingly, those surveyed at fast food restaurants also were less cognizant of the new calorie count information in general than those interviewed by phone. Only a third of those surveyed by phone said they weren’t aware of the new calorie count info whereas two-thirds of those surveyed immediately after buying fast food said they didn’t notice the calorie info despite basically answering the questions in front of the menu.

“Health policies would benefit from greater attention to what is known about effective messaging and behavior change,” study author Andrew Breck, a doctoral candidate at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, was quoted as saying. “The success of fast-food menu labeling depends on multiple conditions being met, not just the availability of calorie information.”

The researchers did admit that their study didn’t take into account that the new calorie count policies could inspire the restaurants themselves to make their menus healthier. The authors also don’t appear to be advocating for getting rid of calorie counts, but instead going further to make sure customers are aware of what this info means, possibly by adding things like daily recommended calorie intakes or information about how much exercise it takes to burn off these calories.

Overall, the study seems to suggest that the problem is that we may underestimate the extent to which people actually bother to look at calorie counts or consider what they mean. Though to be fair, it can be hard to pay attention to calorie count numbers with graduate students hovering over your shoulder waiting to ask you a bunch of questions.

[h/t Modern Farmer]

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