Beginning this spring, fast food chains with more than 20 locations in the United States will be required to post calorie counts for all items on their menus. But is this an effective strategy for reducing caloric intake among fast food diners? A new study suggests it may not be.
Calorie counts on fast food menus date back to 2008 in New York City. A health code provision was proposed mandating that the information be provided front and center in an attempt to combat the high rate of obesity and related complications. It was intended to help New Yorkers “make healthier choices about what to eat, living longer, healthier lives as a result,” according to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner at the time. The New York Restaurant Association sued the Board of Health, claiming the law violated First Amendment rights, but the measure passed and was enacted quickly. The state of California followed suit the next year.
For all the time and resources that have gone into similar laws around the country, the positive effects are negligible. Andrew Breck, a doctoral candidate at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, authored a study based on a Philadelphia survey of 1,400 individuals who eat at fast food restaurants. The results indicated that as few as 8 percent of fast food diners order healthier items owing to posted calorie counts.
To be successful, Breck says, the law “requires that target consumers simultaneously see the calorie labels, are motivated to eat healthfully, and understand how many calories they should be eating.” Without that introspection, the benefits don’t seem to take hold.