The Truth Won't Set You Free-- from Fatty Foods

Calorie labeling at fast food restaurants doesn't change food choices

(RxWiki News) Backing up conclusions from a previous study, researchers found that calorie labeling at fast food restaurants does not affect the food purchases of teenagers or parents.

Although the labels increased awareness of calories, they did not change food choices, especially for teenagers.

A few years ago, New York was the first city to require calorie labeling in fast food restaurants. The policy was an attempt to combat the growing obesity epidemic.

In order to see if the labeling policy had any effect on consumers' food choices, Dr. Brian Elbel, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Health Policy at NYU School of Medicine, collected fast food receipts and surveys from 427 parents and teenagers at fast-food restaurants both before and after labeling became mandatory. The researchers focused on lower income communities (a population with an increased risk of obesity) in New York. As a comparison city, Dr.Elbel and his team used Newark, New Jersey, where calorie labeling was not required by law.

The researchers found that calorie labeling did increase teens' awareness of calories, but, as teens are wont to do, they ignored the lesson. Before mandatory labeling, none of the teenagers reported noticing calorie information in the restaurant. After the labeling, 57 percent said they noticed calorie information.

Although 9 percent of teens, and 28 percent of parents, said that the calorie labeling influenced their food choices, the researchers observed no change in the number of calories purchased by either group. Both before and after mandatory labeling went into effect, teenagers bought about 725 calories and parents bought about 600 calories for their children.

A little more than a quarter of the teen participants said that they limited the amount of food they ate in order to limit their weight. Yet most teenagers underestimated how many calories they were consuming. Sometimes they were wrong about their calorie intake by as much as 466 calories.

According to Dr. Elbel, the limited influence of calorie labeling suggests that just labeling foods with their calorie count is not enough to curb the obesity epidemic. As such, policy makers should consider other approaches.

Obesity has definitively been linked to health complications including stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, all of which burden America with billions of dollars in avoidable health care costs. Also, obesity negatively impacts America's ability to compete in the global market by costing billions of dollars in lost productivity to compnaies each year.

The study by Dr. Elbel's team is published in the International Journal of Obesity.

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Review Date: 
February 15, 2011