Posting the calorie content
of menu items at restaurants is designed to make diners stop and think, tally
up the total and make wiser choices.
In real life, that doesn't
seem to be the case, according to new research.
In a poll of 2000
Philadelphia fast-food customers, aged 18 to 64, few used the information, even
if they noticed it, said study author Brian Elbel, an assistant professor of
population health and health policy at the NYU School of Medicine.
"40% of the sample saw
it and about 10% [overall] said they used it and reported to us that they
purchased fewer calories," he said.
The study is published in the journal Obesity. Elbel is scheduled to present
the findings at the Obesity Society's annual meeting in Atlanta.
Noticing calorie labelling
Elbel's team collected
receipts from customers at McDonald's and Burger King restaurants and asked
them a series of questions. These included how often they visited fast-food
restaurants, if they noticed the calorie information and if they used it. They
did that before and after February 2010, when the Philadelphia calorie-count
label law went into effect.
At the same time, a
telephone survey was done of other Philadelphia residents asking them if they
ate at fast-food restaurants and if they noticed the calorie labelling.
The researchers also
surveyed customers of both chains in Baltimore, a city that does not mandate
Stemming obesity epidemic
Elbel found no differences
in the number of visits or calories purchased after the policy went into effect
in Philadelphia. The amount of calories in food purchased and the number of
fast-food restaurant visits did not change much at all in either city over
reported eating nearly six times a week at a fast-food chain before the law and
about seven times after. Baltimore residents ate at a fast-food chain about
seven times a week both before and after.
Under the US health law
known as the Affordable Care Act, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations
nationally must post the calorie content of all regular drink and food items on
their menu board or on printed menus. Final regulations on that provision are
pending from the US Food and Drug Administration, Elbel said.
The provision is meant to
help stem the obesity epidemic. Currently, one-third of Americans are obese,
raising their risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems.
In general, obesity rates
are higher among minorities. In the survey, 70% of those polled were black.
Calorie info not enough
Elbel can't completely
explain the findings. However, he said, "It is hard to counteract the fact
that fast-food is cheap and tastes pretty good."
He does not think it's time
to abandon the calorie-label idea. Rather, he views it as one way to help
people make wiser choices, along with many other strategies.
One expert not involved
with the study said the calorie-label programme may need to go further.
information is not enough," said Alice Lichtenstein, a distinguished
professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. "If we want
people to use the information, we need to raise awareness about its
availability and most importantly, educate about its use."
This is especially crucial,
she said, for those who haven't put a high priority on good nutrition.
Lichtenstein suggested a
study that looks at the effects of an informational campaign on the use of
calorie labels. Other research, she said, indicated that ''those people who
report using the calorie labelling order fewer calories."
To learn more about how to
make healthy food choices, visit the US
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.