Menu Calorie Counts Nudge Some Customers to Less Fattening Food, Study Says

The Big Apple’s effort to take a bite out of obesity by adding calorie counts to fast-food menus has paid off — but only for  about one in six customers, new research shows.

Customers who looked at the calorie counts typically ordered about 100 fewer calories than those who didn’t, according to the study, which was published in the British medical journal BMJ.

But, as USA Today reports, the study found that the other customers ignored or didn’t notice the calorie numbers and ordered whatever they wanted.

Still, New York City health officials who worked on the study said the results showed that the 2008 law mandating the calorie counts is effective not only in encouraging people to order less fattening food, but in getting restaurants to add healthier choices to their menus.

“Calorie labeling alone won’t cure the obesity epidemic but it is one part of trying to address it,” said Dr. Lynn D. Silver, an official with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and one of the study’s authors.

New York was the first U.S. municipality to require chain restaurants to post the counts. Starting in 2012, the federal government will require all chains with 20 or more locations to print calorie counts on menus.

About a third of adults in the U.S. are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The New York study compared lunchtime purchases at 11 fast-food chains around New York in 2007 versus those in 2009, after the law was passed. Researchers asked nearly 16,000 customers for their receipts and talked with them about their choices. While there was no clear overall change in calorie intake among restaurant patrons, customers at three chains — McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain and KFC — ordered meals with fewer calories.

Those three chains also introduced healthier menu choices around the same time the law was passed, the study said.

On the other hand, the Subway sandwich shop chain showed a big increase in the average calorie counts of lunch orders, but the study’s authors attributed that to a “$5 foot-long” deal introduced nationally in 2008.

“There is a strong and growing consensus that consumers want to know what they are eating so that they can make informed choices,” the authors wrote.


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