Fast-Food Calorie Labeling Fails To Motivate Consumers To Choose Healthy Eating, Study Finds

Fast-food menu calorie counts do not help consumers make healthy choices when it comes to their diet, researchers from New York University said in a new study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. The study comes months before a federal policy will come to effect requiring calorie labeling in the U.S.

According to the researchers, only a small part of fast-food eaters are likely to make healthy choices as a result of the calorie labeling. The study comes just six months before a federal policy requiring calorie labeling will come into effect in the U.S.

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

The labeling of calorie on fast-food restaurant menus was designed to urge consumers to change their food choices for a healthy living. But despite the rapid and widespread adoption of policies it has been found there has been little change in the consumers' behavior despite the labels.

Fast food A drive-thru menu is displayed at a McDonald's restaurant in Encinitas, California, July 21, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Scot Burton of the University of Arkansas and Jeremy Kees of Villanova University created a framework to outline five conditions that need to be present in order for people to be motivated by calorie labeling at fast-food chains:

  • Consumers must be aware of the labeling.
  • Consumers must be motivated to eat healthy.
  • They must know the number of calories that needs to be consumed on a daily basis to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Labeling must provide information that differs from consumers' expectations of how many calories foods contain.
  • Labeling must reach regular fast-food consumers.

The study uses this framework to better understand why menu calorie labeling policies did not have much impact on the consumers. In the study, researchers used data collected in Philadelphia shortly after calorie labeling went into effect in the city in 2008. Responses from 699 consumers at 15 fast-food restaurants throughout Philadelphia were analyzed, as well as responses from 702 phone surveys of the city's residents.

Based on the two surveys, the researchers found that a small minority of fast-food consumers met all conditions mentioned in the framework. Only 8 percent of those surveyed in fast-food restaurants and 16 percent of those surveyed by phone met all five conditions.

"We know that few regular fast-food eaters chose fast food because it is nutritious; they instead are motivated by cost and convenience," study author Beth Weitzman, professor of public health and policy at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, said. "However, requiring restaurants to make the calorie content of their menu items highly visible could cause restaurants to add new, healthy options to their menus."

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