A growing trend in chain and fast food restaurants is adding a calorie count listed next to the items on the menu. Theoretically, the addition of a calorie count helps patrons to take a step back and think about how much they are prepared to consume before any given meal. We’ve known for a while that people are horrible at guessing the calories in fast food. However, a recent study looked into nutritional information labeling trend and found that individuals will eat what they want, regardless of whether or not the nutritional numbers are listed on the menu.
The study was published in the July 18 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health and was accomplished on a small scale in New York City. During the study, over 1,100 adult-aged participants were surveyed at McDonald’s locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. New York City law recently mandated that the calorie and nutritional information be posted at each chain restaurant location in the city. The first half of the study was undergone before the calorie counts were listed and the second half of the study was accomplished after calorie counts became readily available.
What the researchers found was not surprising. Other studies have noted that menu labeling isn’t helping people to change their ordering habits. More importantly, however, US News is reporting the study looked into giving restaurant patrons added information based on a daily calorie count, a meal calorie count, or no literature at all. Even with the literature explaining how much a person should eat to maintain a healthy weight, there was no drop in the amount of calories patrons purchased at the McDonald’s locations. Lead study author Julie Downs had hopes that the literature would have a greater effect, but now admits it did not.
“There has been the growing thought that perhaps the problem is that people don't know how to use the information without some framework, some guidance. So what we tested is whether we could improve food purchasing behavior by offering people general daily or per-meal calorie guidelines alongside food labeling in restaurants. But we found it didn't help at all."
The calorie postings have become widespread, regardless of how helpful the lists actually are. The entire states of California and Oregon require calorie counts to be listed at chain restaurants. Other large cities, including the aforementioned New York City and Philadelphia, have also passed laws about adding calorie counts to menus. These laws are virtually useless if the calorie counts are having no effect, except to help the people who do want instant and easy access to that information.
Access to information is a great thing, but Downs also notes that people need to have a solid reason to choose healthier options on the menu, stating that most patrons readily admitted they would rather eat something that tastes good than eat something that may help them maintain a healthy weight and avoid health problems later on. A country-wide mindset change will need to happen in order to break people of their bad habits, but Downs hopes those mindset changes are coming. After all, this study has been published just a few weeks after another study which came to the realization that Americans are living longer, but not healthier. Eventually, the nation’s health problems may catch up with us, and when that happens, the nutritional labeling at restaurants will be waiting.
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