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Fast Food Calorie Count Displays Have No Effect On What We Order Or How Many Calories We Consume

Fast Food Menu Calorie Count
Calorie counts on fast food restaurant menus rarely affect what we order or how many calories we consume. Reuters

Obesity statistics continue to rise, even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act forced all restaurant chains to post calories counts for menu items back in 2008. Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center determined that menu calorie counts have little to no effect on what customers order or how many calories they consume.

"We found no difference in calories purchased or fast-food visits after the introduction of the policy," Dr. Brian Elbel, assistant professor of Population Health and Health Policy at NYU School of Medicine, said in a statement. "Given the limits of labeling reported here and in other studies, it's clear that just posting calories is often not enough to change behavior among all populations.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one-third of the population in the United States is considered obese. People who suffer from obesity are also more likely to develop other health conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. In 2008, the U.S. spent $147 billion on obesity-related medical costs.

The research that was presented at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society. It was based off 2,000 customer receipts, collected after 2010, from McDonald’s and Burger King locations in the Philadelphia area. The federal calorie-label law went into effect in Philadelphia after Feb. 2010. Customers, who were between the age of 18 and 64, were asked how often they ate at fast-food restaurant chains, if they noticed calorie counts on menus, and if this information had any effect on how much food they ordered.

Findings from the analysis revealed that 34 percent of McDonald’s customers and 49 percent of Burger King customers noticed calories counts on restaurant menus. The study’s participants also admitted to eating fast food over five times a week before and after calorie counts were posted. Results also showed that people with a high school education or lower were more likely to ignore calorie counts.

"What we're seeing is that many consumers, particularly vulnerable groups, do not report noticing calorie labeling information and even fewer report using labeling to purchase fewer calories," Dr. Elbel said in the statement. "After labeling began in Philadelphia, about 10 percent of the respondents in our study said that calorie labels at fast-food chains resulted in them choosing fewer calories."

Dr. Elbel has conducted similar experiments at NYU’s School of Medicine that were associated with menu calorie counts effect on food consumption. The research team surveyed Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and KFC customers after the calorie count law was enacted in New York City in 2008. Data was also based on parents buying lunch or dinner for small children.

Just over half of the customers said they had noticed calorie counts on menus, and around nine percent said it had an effect on what they intended to order and how many calories they consumed. Only 25 percent of parents said they based their menu choice on calorie amount, even though receipts showed that they had ordered approximately 600 calories worth of food before and after the law was passed.

“Studies have not generally examined whether labeling is more or less effective for particular subgroups,” Dr. Elbel added. "We need to consider other, more robust interventional policies in places where obesity is most prevalent."

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