Does Posting Calorie Counts On Menus Sway Consumers?

Starting last year, fast food restaurants in New York City were required to list the total calories of every item on the menu. The idea was to provide greater transparency for consumers so that they can make smarter choices. Has it worked? Professors at New York University and Yale have completed a study that shows that the labeling makes consumers think they’re being healthier, but in fact they’re ordering more total calories than before the law went into effect.

From Anemona Hartocollis at the New York Times:

The study… tracked customers at four fast-food chains – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken – in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.

There are two things to note before gloating that the policy doesn’t work, or railing aginst the inability of consumers to look out for their best interests.

The first is that the study focused on poor neighborhoods where people are possibly more concerned about immediate food costs than long-term health costs:

“Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people, who are probably the least amenable to calorie labeling,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group in Washington.

The second is that the study took place right after the law went into effect, and there has been subsequent nutrition education by the city. However, that also means there’s been more time for consumers to grow used to the labeling and stop noticing it at all.

Times says the city is doing its own, broader study and will release the results “in a few months.”

“Calorie Postings Don’t Change Habits, Study Finds” [New York Times]