Study: Calorie labeling may not alter eating habits

by Eric Schroeder
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NEW YORK — A new study by professors at Yale and New York University shows that while consumers may be noticing calorie counts on menus and menu boards and believe they are making healthier choices as a result, behavioral data suggest consumers’ calorie consumption habits have changed very little since mandatory menu labeling went into effect in July 2008.

As part of the study, researchers compared fast-food eating in low income areas of New York before and after mandatory menu labeling with fast-food eating in Newark, N.J., which has no calorie labeling requirement.

The researchers collected data at four restaurants — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — for a two-week period before labeling began in New York City, and again for a two-week period one month after labels were posted in restaurants. As adults were leaving the restaurants, they were asked to participate in a brief survey, their receipts were collected and the foods they purchased were confirmed.

The study of 1,156 adults found that posting calories increased the percentage of consumers who saw calorie information to 54%, with nearly 28% indicating that the information was influential in their food choices.

Despite a number of people saying they purchased fewer calories in response to labeling, the researchers found that people in New York City purchased a mean number of 825 calories before menu labeling was introduced and 846 calories after labeling was introduced. By comparison, the number of calories purchased in Newark before and after labeling was 823 calories and 826 calories, respectively.

"Eating behavior is notoriously resistant to change," the researchers said. "A large body of research has shown that weight-loss interventions designed to educate people about healthful food choices are generally ineffective. Thus, simply displaying information about the caloric value of various food options may fail to translate into attitudinal, motivational, or — most importantly — behavioral changes in line with choosing healthier food options. Menu labels may need to be coupled with additional policy approaches.

"At the same time, 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."

The researchers called menu labeling "an important first attempt" to alter food environments on a large scale, adding that the move may prove beneficial to health and cost effective.

"However, we simultaneously encourage further research on menu labeling and much greater attention to implementing and evaluating other obesity-related policies," the researchers said.

Full results of the study are available in the on-line version of the journal Health Affairs at www.healthaffairs.org.

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