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Evidence Menu Labels Don't Affect Calorie Consumption

The latest look at fast-food menu labeling suggests it's not changing attitudes at the counter, but experts hope it may make a difference earlier in the decision chain.
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Having made a decision to dine on fast food, additional information about the composition of its delights doesn't seem to affect decisions about what to enjoy. That's the takeaway message from a new but limited study drawn from Taco Time restaurants in the Seattle area.

Researchers led by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School's Eric A. Finkelstein examined the impact — or lack of it — of mandatory menu-labeling laws. They found that the number of sales and average number of calories purchased were the same at eateries with the data as at eateries without.

Usually citing alarming statistics about obesity in America, a number of regional governments have considered or even implemented such requirements, and the U.S. government expects to release its own regulations on fast-food menu labeling by March 23.

The concept that rational people will make better nutritional decisions if they have pertinent facts in front of them is certainly an attractive argument, and there's been some evidence that it makes a difference. In another Seattle-based study reported by our Elisabeth Best ("Information: The New Weight-Loss Drug"), for example, parents chose less calorie-laden Happy Meal items for their kids when presented with calorie data.

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But other studies have suggested people don't even see the posters or pick up the pamphlets that describe the culinary crimes they're about to commit. Two years ago, Ryan Blitstein wrote that "just 0.1 percent of customers visiting restaurants like McDonald's and Burger King actually look at the nutritional content." ("Would You Like Nutrition Info With That?") As Yale's Christina Roberto told him at the time, "My hypothesis was that it'd be a small number. I just didn't think it would be that small."

That same sort of letdown was evident in Finkelstein's reaction, as quoted in a release accompanying the study in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine. "Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small, but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation. The results suggest that mandatory menu labeling, unless combined with other interventions, may be unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic."

One of his co-authors, Kiersten Strombotne, suggested that fast-food patrons have already made their choices by walking in. "For example," she was quoted, "if you know a store offers diet and regular soda, does showing how many calories are in regular soda really offer any relevant information? Those who want a lower-calorie drink already know to drink the diet soda."

In short, "it may be that detailed nutritional information is not the best way to convey the health content of fast foods."

But last May, our Joanne Kenen, in "Restaurant Menu Labels Can Make a Difference," argued that "giving diners more dish on their diet has a modest but detectable impact." Her story looked in part at New York City, where officials compared receipts before and after menu labeling was instituted. (The Taco Time researchers compared sales at seven restaurants sporting the labels with seven that didn't, and looked at the locations both before and after the regulation came into effect.)

But Kenen suggested a corollary effect that couldn't be measured in diners' on-the-fly decisions. Instead, benefits could appear before patrons placed their orders, such as improvements in corporate menu setting, portion sizes and even ingredient choice.

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