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Some People Do Heed Fast-Food Calorie Data

Does nutrition information help diners make wise decisions in fast-food restaurants? The latest study finds it does with some people — but that’s still a net benefit to society.
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You're next in line to get the McDonald's burger you've been craving and so close that you can almost taste it. But there’s just one problem: Right next to the words "Double Quarter-Pounder with Cheese" on the menu is the number 740 — as in calories. If this makes your jaw drop and your cravings wave a white flag, you're not alone, but you're close to it.

A new study conducted in New York City found about 15 percent of customers took the nutritional information into consideration when making their food choice.

"One in six customers reported using the calorie information when making their fast-food purchase," researchers noted and added, "compared with other customers, these customers purchased an average of 96 fewer kilocalories overall after adjustment for demographics; this translates to 11 percent lower energy content for these customers. While these numbers may be small, an 11 percent reduction in energy content per meal for one in six fast-food purchases could have a substantial public health impact."

The research, presented this week on the British Medical Journal website examined the impact of a law passed in New York that required chain restaurants with 15 or more stores across the country to provide calorie information on menus. The authors were led by consultant Tamara Dumanovsky and included professors from the Pardee RAND Graduate School and City University of New York School of Public Health, plus health professionals from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

A consistent yes or no as to whether such information works has been hard to find, as the authors themselves note. Readers of have been treated to some of this nutritional pingpong research, as we've cited studies that have reported that no one looked at the data ("My hypothesis was that it’d be a small number. I just didn't think it would be that small," one researcher said), that people acted on the data but only for their kids, and that as the U.S. government pushed all restaurants to 'fess up that this would matter to diners.

Some might think that they would rather see a positive label like "low calorie" or "fat free," but a May 2011 Miller-McCune article found that those labels leave a person feeling less satiated than when they eat something they believe is high in calories. Our Tom Jacobs called the phenomenon “the evil twin of the placebo effect."

Exposing the bad and the ugly rather than the good might be just the ticket with reports of obesity in children and adults at an all-time high. The story stated that a third of adults and 17 percent of kids are currently obese.

The British Medical Journal report shed light on the correlation between eating fast food and consuming too many calories. This could be related to how people tend to underestimate the number of calories in any given fast food meal.

Researchers surveyed thousands of lunchtime diners the year before and the year after the New York law took effect at 168 randomly chosen locations of the top 11 fast-food chains. Overall, the same number of calories were consumed per capita, but at some chains there was a significant reduction in calories purchased per transaction: Au Bon Pain reported 14.4 percent, McDonald's showed a 5.3 percent drop and KFC noted 6.4 percent. Meanwhile, Subway, a company that has almost fetishized how it can offer diners a healthy meal, saw its calories-per-purchase count increase 17.8 percent, which was attributed to them promoting large portions and super-sized meals like its "$5 dollar foot-long."

Chain restaurants that experienced a reduction in calories per purchase shared one trait — they started offering healthier and/or smaller portions and items to their menus.

Essentially, listing calories was not enough to instigate a significant change in customer consumption unless they were offered healthier alternatives like KFC's grilled chicken items. Perhaps the apple slices McDonalds announced it would start putting in Happy Meals will have a similar benefit.

The results were positive, but researchers admitted that providing nutritional information is just one facet of fixing America's diet. "Calorie labeling is only one part of a framework to address the obesity epidemic. … Definitive assessments of the full impact and effectiveness of calorie labeling will require a long-term perspective as calorie labeling goes national and expands to other countries, and chains have greater incentives to modify their menus."

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