Is Calorie Info at Fast Food Chains Making a Difference?

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute

Over two years ago we blogged about New York City’s legislation that requires the listing of calorie information on menus of chain restaurants with 15 or more locations nationally. We argued that in order for calorie information to be helpful people need to know about how many calories they need (total) over the course of the day.

So how helpful/effective has calorie labeling in New York City restaurants been? Researchers recently analyzed survey data from over 7,000 adult customers in 2007 (before the legislation was fully implemented) and almost 8,500 customers in 2009. The surveys were conducted during lunchtime hours at 168 randomly selected locations of the top 11 fast food chains in New York City.

Results showed that between 2007 and 2009 the calorie content of lunchtime purchases in New York City declined significantly in three major fast food chains (McDonalds, KFC, and Au Bon Pain), but not across the entire sample of restaurants, and increased at one chain where large portions were heavily promoted (Subway). After the regulation, one in six lunchtime customers used the calorie information provided, and these customers made lower calorie choices (an average of 106 fewer calories).

Study authors conclude that calorie labeling is only one part of a framework to address the obesity epidemic. And that assessment of the full impact and effectiveness of calorie labeling will require a larger, longer term study when calorie labeling goes national and fast food chains have greater incentives to modify their menus. What do you think?

1Dumanovsky, T., Huang, C.Y., & Nonas, C.A. (2011). Changes in energy content of lunchtime purchases from fast food restaurants after introduction of calorie labelling: cross sectional customer surveys. British Medical Journal, 343:d4464.

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