Chain restaurants have been posting calorie counts on menus in New York City since 2008, but it’s not clear that the information actually helps anyone eat better. If the latest study on food-buying behavior at four fast-food chains in the city is any indication, the posted calorie counts are being largely disregarded by both teens and adults.
Dr. Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, and his team surveyed customers at Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC before and after New York City’s 2008 calorie-count law went into effect. The researchers also surveyed consumers in Newark, where no comparable law exists. (More on Time.com: Former McDonald’s Executives to Open a New Health-Food Chain)
More than half of teenagers said they did in fact notice the calorie postings, and 9% said the labeling prompted them to buy lower-calorie foods. But a check of the teens’ register receipts showed that the number of calories they actually bought were the same before and after restaurants started posting calories. On average, teens bought 725 calories per meal.
Researchers also studied the behavior of parents buying food for small children. More than one-quarter of parents said that labeling influenced their menu choices, but their receipts showed they purchased the same number calories, about 600, both before and after calories were posted on menus.
The study found that taste, not nutrition, was the most important factor for teens deciding what to eat, followed by cost. It also found that most teenagers were unaware of how many calories their meals contained — they underestimated the number of calories they were consuming, by up to 466 calories. They also didn’t know how many calories the average adult needs; 60% of teens thought adults need fewer than 1,500 calories per day (it’s actually about 2,000). One-third of teens said they ate fast food six days a week. (More on Time.com: Toddlers’ Junk-Food Diet May Lead to Lower IQ)
Of course, the study had some limitations: it was small, and included only restaurants that were located in low-income neighborhoods. It also studied consumers’ behavior for only one month after the labeling law went into effect, which may not have been enough time to register a change. The study also could not capture those people who decided to stop eating fast food once calories were posted, or those who decided to eat at fast-food restaurants less frequently.
The authors said that menu labeling was unlikely to influence obesity in a large-scale way, and that other public-health approaches — including participation by food manufacturers and restaurants to create healthier options and reduce advertising to children — must play a role.