Ever since New York City began requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, there has been much speculation about whether the new regulations are actually convincing people to eat more healthily, or just inducing food-related guilt. But although research is being conducted to explore NYC’s labeling experiment, it isn’t producing conclusive answers. The best answer seems to be that customers’ eating habits can change as a result of calorie postings – that is, if the customers are paying attention.
A new study funded by the city of New York and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, comparing calories and fast food choices among thousands of diners before and after the calorie labeling regulations went into effect in summer 2008, is frustratingly ambivalent. Researchers examined purchases in 2007 and 2009, among thousands of patrons of a handful of New York’s most popular chain restaurants. They discovered calorie reductions among some of the chains, but not others. Overall, there was no significant change in the average calories customers purchased before and after the law.
Naturally, advocates for menu-labeling are spinning the study as proof that calorie postings really do change customers’ eating habits. But the restaurants where consumers did seem to be paying attention to the calorie information had also recently expanded their menus to include more low-fat options. The authors of the study pointed out that labeling laws can be seen to have a positive effect, in that they encourage restaurants to pay more attention to the content of their food.
Overall, though, posting calorie counts doesn’t seem to be the panacea that the law’s proponents had hoped for. This is somewhat unfortunate, since starting next year, these laws will be imposed across the country.
Advocates against eating disorders criticized the labeling regulations when they first came out, saying that they would simply encourage people who were already vulnerable to calorie-counting to think of their food only in terms of caloric intake, rather than nutritional value. Others say that calorie labels will help only people who are already attuned to nutrition information and know what the numbers mean. Equally problematically, the labeling does not inform the customer about what is in the food they’re about to eat.
For example, a turkey sandwich, something that one could eat for lunch without guilt, probably has about as many calories as a large chocolate chip cookie. Does that mean that you should eat the cookie instead of the sandwich? Of course not. But by the logic of calorie-labeling, the choice to replace good foods with empty calories could make sense.
Either way, there doesn’t seem to be compelling evidence that consumers are paying attention to the calorie counts. Maybe their real value lies in forcing restaurants to take a second look at their ingredients and give customers a broader range of healthy options.
Photo from Ed Yourdon via flickr.