Nuggets of Wisdom

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Calorie Counts Can’t Curb Customer Choices

Apparently forcing restaurants to post calories on their menus doesn’t influence customers to make healthier choices, according to one study:

A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains.

Skip to next paragraph The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, 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.

The findings, to be published Tuesday in the online version of the journal Health Affairs come amid the spreading popularity of calorie-counting proposals as a way to improve public health across the country.

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

Somehow I’m not surprised. Tobacco companies have been forced to place warning labels on their cigarette packs, and that hasn’t stopped people from smoking.

Forcing restaurants to post calories on their menu items seems superfluous. Most restaurants already have nutritional information posted in their restaurants, on their websites, and on their food containers.

Even if the calorie counts did influence customers to make healthier choices, many of the healthier choices aren’t really that healthy. For example, a Premium Caesar Salad with Crispy Chicken (without salad dressing) has only 30 less calories and 1 gram less fat than an Original Chicken Sandwich, and a Fruit n’ Yogurt Parfait (without granola) has only 20 less calories and 1.5 grams less fat than a vanilla ice cream cone.