More Bad News for Fans of Menu Calorie Counts

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Calories On Menus
Photo: ED OU/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

When New York City enacted its calorie-labeling regulation in July of 2008, the logic made sense. By forcing chain restaurants with 15 or more locations to give consumers information about foods’ calorie contents, it would allow people to make smarter, better-informed decisions about their eating habits. Alas, as with many other awareness-raising efforts, the evidence that calorie counts lead to smarter nutritional decisions isn’t very strong. And now a new study in Health Affairs lends even more reason for skepticism.

A team led by Jonathan Cantor, a Ph.D. student at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner graduate school of Public Service, ran a study in which they asked diners at a bunch of fast-food outlets in both New Jersey (which no such ban was passed) and New York to answer some questions about their meal purchases and hand over their receipts in exchange for $2. The research was conducted over two periods: in 2008, right after the ban went into effect, and at a few different points between 2013 and 2014.

The idea was to compare fast-food patrons in places with and without calories counts so as to see what effect the labels had — the researchers tested restaurants in demographically similar neighborhoods so as to help control for other potential explanations of differing consumption habits. They write: 

We found that posted calorie information increased the likelihood of customers’ reporting having seen nutrition information in the restaurant, reporting using the information, and reporting using it to reduce the number of calories consumed. However, the magnitude of each effect declined over a five-year period. We found no consistent change in the nutritional content of foods and beverages purchased or in how often respondents purchased fast food.

So, based on this analysis, calorie labels are pretty good at … getting people to claim they saw and used calorie labels. The problem is their actual behavior doesn’t change.

As the researchers point out, there are some at least mildly promising alternatives to calorie counts that have a bit more evidence behind them: “Laboratory studies have shown encouraging responses to the use of stop signs for less healthful foods and exercise equivalents needed to burn the calories in specific menu items, ranking items according to their calorie content, or supplementing the existing numbers with the recommended number of calories to consume in a day or at a meal.” In the meantime, though, the Affordable Care Act’s rule requiring chain restaurants to post calorie labels is set to go into effect December 1 of next year. The evidence that it’ll nudge people to consume less fat is (sorry) pretty thin.