In a recent study, researchers from New York University show that fast-food menu calorie counts do not help consumers make healthy choices. The finding is published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
Calorie labeling on fast-food restaurant menus was designed to motivate consumers to change their behavior by providing them with health information.
In 2006, New York became the first city to introduce labeling requirements for fast-food chains; Philadelphia and Seattle followed shortly after.
On May 5, 2017, calorie labeling will go into effect nationwide, with the Food and Drug Administration requiring all chain restaurants with at least 20 locations to post calorie information.
But despite the rapid and widespread adoption of policies to require calorie counts at restaurants, most studies have found little evidence that fast-food consumers are changing their behaviors in response to the labels.
These surprising findings become less so in light of research suggesting that simply providing calorie information may not create change.
Basically, five conditions that need to be present in order for people to be swayed by calorie labeling at fast-food chains:
- Consumers must be aware of the labeling.
- Consumers must be motivated to eat healthfully.
- They must know the number of calories one should eat daily to maintain a healthy weight.
- Labeling must provide information that differs from consumers’ expectations of how many calories foods contain.
- Labeling must reach regular fast-food consumers.
In this study, the NYU researchers used data collected in Philadelphia shortly after calorie labeling went into effect in the city in 2008.
They analyzed responses from 699 consumers who completed point-of-purchase surveys at 15 fast-food restaurants throughout Philadelphia, as well as responses from 702 phone surveys of the city’s residents.
Based on the two surveys, researchers found only 8% of those surveyed in fast-food restaurants and 16% of those surveyed by phone met all five conditions:
They were aware of menu labeling, were motivated to eat healthfully, could estimate their daily calorie intake, were surprised by calorie counts, and ate fast food at least once a week.
33% of people surveyed by phone did not see calorie labels posted and nearly 66% surveyed at point-of-purchase did not notice the calorie information.
Moreover, about 75% of those surveyed by phone could correctly estimate the calories they should consume daily, but only about 37% of those surveyed at point-of-purchase could do this.
As a result, the researchers recommend that restaurants make calorie information more visible to consumers through clear signage and fonts that are large and in a noticeable color.
In addition, government should make more health policies and education programs to help people improve their eating behavior.
To summarize, the success of fast-food menu labeling depends on multiple conditions being met, not just the availability of calorie information.
News source: New York University.
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is for illustrative purposes only.