So, Do Calorie Counts On Menus Help People Make Better Choices? Or Not?

There have been two recent studies concerning NYC’s menu labeling law. One said that the posted calorie counts had no effect — and the other disagrees. So, who is right?

Turns out they both may be. The first study concentrated on low-income neighborhoods where obesity is a real problem — but where the customers are “price sensitive.” The other study, done by the Department of Health, was city wide and included many more transactions.

From the NYT:

Last week, city health officials delivered a more upbeat assessment, saying New Yorkers ordered fewer calories at four chains – Au Bon Pain, KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks – after the law went into effect last year.

The changes reported by the city health department’s preliminary data were modest, indicating little change either way in the number of calories bought at 8 of 13 chains surveyed, and a significant increase in calories ordered at Subway, which researchers attributed to a continuing $5 promotional special on footlong sandwiches that has tripled demand for them.

Subway led the way on menu labeling while other chains resisted. It seems they understood that posting calories wasn’t going to hurt business — not when there are $5 footlongs to be had.

It seems that you can put lots of numbers on a menu, but people are still going to look at the ones that come after the dollar sign.

How Posted Calories Affect Food Orders [NYT]

Comments

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  1. dbshaw says:

    Knowing the calorie count is really only useful to people who want to know for their own purposes. If you’re not a calorie counter the info isn’t likely to be important to you. Anyone who has the understanding to realize what the numbers mean is probably already helping themselves so the posted numbers aren’t likely to be revelatory to many.

    That being said, I don’t think that the quantity of people helped is the important metric to be focused on in the debate about whether calories should be posted. They should be posted because its important information about your food and those few who do want or need to know should be able to have that info readily available.

  2. robotrousers says:

    It makes me feel guiltier about the crap I eat. But I still eat it.

  3. sprocket79 says:

    I like the nutritional information. I went to a steakhouse this weekend and I thought about getting a burger. When I saw how many calories it was (1480!!!) I decided to get filet mignon (320 calories), a salad, and a tomato based soup (about half the calories of the potato soup). In the end I had a really nice meal with a decent amount of calories.

  4. suburbancowboy says:

    I want the ingredients to be found easily. To discover that KFC Grilled Chicken has rendered Beef fat, and beef broth and MSG, you have to dig very deep in their web site.

  5. bnelson333 says:

    Give me easy access to the info. Every restaurant, sit-down, chain, fast food, or mom and pop shop should have a flyer somewhere that has nutrition info for EVERY item on their menu. I count calories, have lost close to 60 lbs by now, and it drives absolutely insane how many places do NOT provide this info! I don’t mind asking for it, but just make it available. And this brings me to my other pet peeve, no, I don’t ONLY care about nutrition info for the “diet” foods. Calorie counters eat everyday food too. So what if I want a big greasy cheeseburger? If it fits into calorie target for the day it’s fair game, please at least tell me how many calories it has so I know if I can afford it!

    End rant now… phew that feels good to get that off my chest. :D

  6. Tim says:

    (Not a New Yorker here …)

    I still get the 6-inch ones. I think only once in my life could I actually eat a footlong. I wish the 6-inch ones were cheaper though. $5 for a footlong, then … $4 for a 6-inch? Uh, no. $3 would be reasonable.

  7. Outrun1986 says:

    Not everyone is using fast food restaurants as a daily food source. A lot of people who go to these places are tourists or people who are out on a day long shopping trip. Both of these groups will probably burn enough calories in a day to justify a meal that has higher calories than a normal meal for them. These people will not care how many calories their meal has, because they only eat the food once in a while, maybe once a month or once every 2-3 weeks if that. Again, if your eating fast food for one of those reasons, your probably burning enough calories to justify the meal, so I don’t think its going to do any harm in the long run.

    It would be interesting to chart a McDonald’s or other fast food restaurant in a non-tourist neighborhood and one that is used primarily by tourists to see how the calories fare.

  8. kmw2 says:

    See, I only eat fast food a couple times a year (if that), and I never manage to finish what I order anyhow. So I don’t actually care that much if I stuff my face with a quarter of a 1,000-calorie burger. What might be actually useful is requiring companies to offer ingredient lists!

  9. Mecharine says:

    If they werent already eating healthy, then no amount of information is going to change their mind. This is the same situation with cigarettes.

  10. PsiCop says:

    There are problems with both of these studies. The second was performed by the city health department, which presumably is staffed by people who are interested in seeing the new regulations look good … since they’re the ones who have to enforce them. The first study was independent, but covered a much smaller sample and a more restricted population.

    Not to mention the Subway promotion appears to have skewed the results in one of them, right off the top, meaning that even if the study had been done by independent researchers with no vested interest in the outcome, the results don’t necessarily reflect reality very well.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to reach any conclusions as yet, based on either of these studies. Let’s get more data … and let’s get some from people who have no incentive to want the regulations to look good.

  11. rosvicl says:

    I take the Subway $5 footlong offer, because what I actually want is 8 or 9 inches of sandwich, not six. So, I’ll get the footlong, eat half as a sandwich, then either eat a few bits of the other hand, or pick out bits of meat and salad and ignore the roll. (Yes, the bread is fresh, but I like crustier bread than they offer.)

    The biggest surprise I’ve gotten from those calorie postings was in a Starbucks. Banana, 90-150 calories. It shouldn’t have surprised me–bananas are a starchy staple–but we’ve been taught that fruit is mostly low in calories.

  12. grimdeath9740 says:

    It’s a good idea….for people who understand what a good calorie amount is. I for one do not. I have no idea what a good amount is for daily consumption so the count is moot.

    I also would like to suggest that the people that DO actually know what a good amount is would most likely be the ones that also have a good idea of the amounts of the items without needing a chart.

    Just saying, ive seen the calorie and other counts on the side of products in the grocery store for years (even worked at one when I was younger) and they still mean nothing to me. Not saying they shouldnt (I am over weight and this is most likely a major cause of that) but the counts alone will not a skinny nation make.

  13. joshuadavis says:

    Hea@Xerloq, we are all made of stars.: Healthy food is cheaper. Replace a hunk of beef with rice and broccoli (a complete protein) and you’ve yourself some money. By the way I just finished my dinner consisting mostly of rice and broccoli.

  14. valleyval says:

    @Xerloq, we are all made of stars.: Yeah like baby carrots vs. potato chips…wait that doesn’t work. How about water vs. soda…nope. Processed and packaged foods are more expensive than fresh raw ingredients.

  15. calquist says:

    @supercereal: I totally agree, but it is a step forward versus no information at all. We need to teach people to pay attention to labels first before we can teach them to compare the different things on those labels.

    And when it comes to McDonald’s, I think more calories does equal worse food. They don’t exactly have 1,000 calorie whole wheat vs. white bread buns to choose from.

  16. ecwis says:

    @supercereal: Right, I never look at calories. I can understand doing that if you wanted to lose weight I guess but not for overall healthy eating. My number one concern right now is to avoid artificial ingredients. I don’t trust fake things.

  17. AnthonyC says:

    @valleyval:
    Water that comes out of your sink, even if you filter it, is cheaper than bottled, dramatically so. If you need to carry some with you, but one plastic bottle, once, and just keep using it.

    If you go to the grocery store and compare # calories/dollar, you can’t really do better than large bags of white rice. At Costco rice can be had for ~25 cents a pound- 7000 calories/dollar.

  18. Amish Undercover says:

    @valleyval: I can remain full on $1 in chips much longer than I can on $1 in carrots.

  19. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    @FigNinja: I find my stomach still growling after eating the six inch sub, so I tend to actually eat the whole thing. I don’t eat chips or drink soda with it, though. I’m not a big eater, either. It’s just that I get the plain oven roasted chicken with a lot of vegetables, and apparently it’s healthy but not particularly filling.

  20. zomgorly says:

    @FigNinja: Yea normally if I get the footlong sub at subway I am only eating the 6 inch for lunch and then save the second part for either dinner or lunch the next day. If I went to subway two days/meals in a row it would cost me more.