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Calorie Labeling on Menus May Not Change Eating Habits

Calorie Labeling on Menus May Not Change Eating Habits


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.

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Photo from Ed Yourdon via flickr.

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3:09AM PST on Mar 4, 2013

It all depends on how people take it

11:14AM PDT on Oct 7, 2012


12:50AM PST on Nov 11, 2011

As I order my food, I have a pretty idea of the calories that I would consume so I choose carefully.

12:55AM PDT on Aug 29, 2011

Thanks for the great info.

2:31AM PDT on Aug 3, 2011

Well, it's going to be a slow change. Most people don't want it, because we are creatures of habit, and want our comfort foods. Plus, with all the conflicting stories, etc... We read that certain foods are better than others - that not all calories are created equal, then good carbs/bad carbs, then we hear no it's not carbs, it's the fat content.

Then there are those nutritionists (and I've seen plenty) who push diet drinks vs. regular drinks, and using margarine vs. real butter, and base it totally off of calorie intake. Talk to a doctor, and the professionals say that diet drinks are bad - artificial sweeteners still taste sweet, so your brain tells your pancreas to release insulin. There's no sugar to get, so your brain craves starchy foods. So you eat a candy bar, etc... On top of which, imitation sweeteners digests into a byproduct of formaldehyde. And then the doctors go on to say that those really low calorie spreads like Promise? It's vegetable oil, right? What consistency is oil? Liquid. Spreads are solids. Guess what is holding them together? Chemicals that your body wasn't meant to be able to break down. So, the doctor just goes and recommends that real butter is better, just use less of it, because at least it's natural. (I've gotten this from multiple doctors & RN's).

So now what? Do we go by how many fat grams, carb points or total calories? I'm hearing conflicting stories all the time. Once people figure it out, it will help. Mayb

1:02PM PDT on Aug 1, 2011

I think the majority of people will ignore the information and eat what they want to anyway. Also, I think just listing the number of calories is too little information. Fat and sodium are two other things to beware of...and cholesterol.

10:45AM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

Coming from Toronto and visiting New York for just 4 days, I was madly in love with the fact that NYC publicly displayed the calories of the foods they sold (something Toronto doesn't do). At that stage in my life, it has guided me to eating healthier foods such that I no longer have to look at calorie counts anymore. I eat more natural, less processed, less meaty foods as much as possible.

8:28AM PDT on Jul 30, 2011

info always helps to make our decisions on what to eat

6:02AM PDT on Jul 30, 2011

It certainly helps me! My most recent shock was seeing how many calories are in those bran, lemon-poppyseed, and banana-nut muffins almost every store sells.

6:07PM PDT on Jul 29, 2011

370 cals in a stupid pretzel?!?!?! See, I would happily skip the (cough cough, second) pretzel! ;p Tongue in cheek, but I say if it makes a difference to even part of the community, then it's a good thing. I believe one person can change or at least enlighten many minds.

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