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Calorie information might not influence fast food choices

Posting calorie information on menus is often cited as an important tool in fighting obesity, but a study published today shows that at least in its initial stages, it doesn't have as big an effect as many health officials had hoped.

California chain restaurants must provide calorie information in a readily accessible place for consumers and, starting in 2011, will have to post the data on menus.  Some restaurants are already doing that. Taco

Such information on menus may increase awareness of calorie content, but it has less of an effect on the number of calories people purchase, according to New York University researchers in a study published today by the journal Health Affairs.

Their data are from New York City, where a mandatory posting ordinance for chain restaurants went into effect last year. The study's authors looked at purchases made by adults at fast-food restaurants two weeks before and one month after mandatory calorie labeling went into effect in July 2008. They focused on lower-income, predominantly black and Latino communities in New York.

Here's what they found:

  • The percentage of people who noticed calorie information increased significantly after the regulation was implemented, from 16% to 54%.
  • Nearly 28% of the post-labeling sample who saw the calorie information said it influenced their choice. Of those, almost 90% said they bought fewer calories in response.
  • There were significant increases in the percentage of people who utilized the information (2.5% to 15%) and the percentage who said it made them purchase fewer calories (1.9% to 13%).
  • While a significant number of those surveyed said calorie labeling influences their food choices, there were no significant differences in the mean number of calories individuals purchased before and after the regulation was implemented.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research program, which helped fund  the study, eating behavior is notoriously resistant to change.

The foundation said that "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 in order to have a significant impact on eating behaviors."

The report came out on the same day a study in Health Affairs questioned whether a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles is effective in fighting obesity.  Read The Times report here.

Full versions of both studies can be found here.

-- Jerry Hirsch

Photo: A New York Taco Bell posts calories on a menu board.  Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


 
Comments () | Archives (1)

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Awareness in product calories is a valuable tool for consumers. Because food choice is so personal, it's going to take more education in order for people to connect how their choices impact their own personal health. Displaying calories gives the control to the consumer to decide for themselves how they want to spend their calories. As a registered dietitian, and consultant to the food and beverage industry these studies reinforce that obesity is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach to address, in which there is no silver bullet or easy solution. In my own practice, I spend a large percentage of the time focusing on helping individuals make behavior changes that will result in a more balanced calorie equation that will lead to positive health results that my clients want to see and feel.

These efforts cumulatively may result in change over time in conjunction with more education on what "calories-in and calories-out" means. I hope to see more educational initiatives teaching that message since that is imperative to sustaining a healthy lifestyle.


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