Calorie Labels Don't Affect Kids' Fast-Food
TUESDAY, Feb. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Posting calorie counts of
menu items at fast-food restaurants doesn't appear to inspire
teenagers and parents of younger children to order less-fattening
meals, new research finds.
Researchers who studied menu choices at four fast-food
restaurant chains before and after mandatory labeling took effect
in New York City said the legislation did little to lower calorie
"We didn't notice a change in calories purchased before and after labeling [went into effect]," said study leader Dr. Brian Elbel, assistant professor of medicine and health policy at the New York University School of Medicine and Wagner School of Public Service.
"Labeling [calories] is not going to be a silver bullet," he said. Restaurant-related efforts to combat childhood obesity will need additional approaches, such as telling consumers an ideal range of calories for each meal, he added.
Fast food has been linked to rising rates of childhood and
adolescent obesity, the authors note.
While teens at fast-food restaurants noticed the posted calorie
counts at about the same rate as adults, this didn't usually
translate into ordering lower-calorie options, said the
Their findings are published online Feb. 15 in the
International Journal of Obesity.
As part of the nation's new health-care reform act, restaurants
with 20 or more locations must post the calorie content of their
menu items. New York City was a pioneer in requiring labeling,
launching its program in July 2008.
For two weeks that summer, Elbel and his team studied the
fast-food choices of 349 children and teens, ages 1 to 17, in
low-income areas of New York City and Newark, N.J., both before and
after calorie labeling was introduced. Newark had no labeling
The restaurants were McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and
Kentucky Fried Chicken. About 90 percent of the customers were
ethnic or racial minorities.
The researchers asked customers as they entered to show them
their receipt and to answer a set of questions in return for $2.
The customers didn't know before ordering what the researchers were
Parents of younger children answered questions about their food
choices for their kids.
Fifty-seven percent of teens in the New York sample said they
noticed the label, but only 9% considered the information when
Teens bought 730 calories per order, on average, before the
labeling appeared and 755 after. Parents ordering for their younger
children ordered 610 calories before and 595 after -- not enough of
a reduction to be significant statistically.
About 35 percent of the teens said they ate fast food six or
more times a week. Nearly three-quarters said taste influenced what
For many customers, convenience of location led to restaurant
Noting that the small size of their study is a limitation, the
authors suggest that nationwide research be conducted once
mandatory labeling is in effect from coast to coast.
The study findings echo previous research by Elbel's team, which
found just over a quarter of adults who noticed menu calorie
information reported using it.
But a study by Dr. Pooja Tandon, of the University of Washington
in Seattle, came up with conflicting results. That study, published
last year, found that parents provided calorie counts at
restaurants ordered about 100 fewer calories per meal for their 3-
to 6-year-olds (enough to make a difference long-term), compared to
parents not given such information.
After reviewing the results of the new research, Tandon said
perhaps a longer follow-up is needed after menu changes to see a
difference. "It is possible that repeated exposures are necessary
before behavior change is seen, or a longer time is needed for
restaurants to reformulate their offerings," she said.
Another expert said this new research suggests that health
information is needed
before families visit fast-food restaurants. "Once a decision
is made to go to a fast-food restaurant, nutrition information
appears to not change choices," said Connie Diekman, director of
university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study points to the need for better education about what
constitutes healthy eating and what appropriate calorie intakes are
per meal, she said.
To learn how to read food labels, visit the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
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