July 19, 2024
In New York, Starbucks displays calorie data. Soon, chains nationwide will be required to do so. Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg News In New York, Starbucks stores display calorie data. Soon, chains nationwide will be required to do so.

Most parents and older children notice calorie counts posted in New York City fast-food restaurants, but the information doesn’t stop them from ordering their favorite burgers and fries, new research shows.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Obesity, come as federal officials are writing rules for chain restaurants to post calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs. The federal guidelines follow moves by several cities, including New York, to require restaurants to disclose calorie counts to diners before they order.

New York University researchers decided to measure how calorie postings influenced dining habits among low-income families. They compared food receipts at New York fast-food restaurants in several low-income neighborhoods
before and after the labeling law took effect. The researchers compared the eating habits of the New York families to diners at fast-food chains in Newark, N.J., where restaurants weren’t required to disclose
calorie information.

A total of 349 children, ages 1 to 17, visited the restaurants, which included McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC. About 70 percent were with their parents, while 30 percent of the kids ordered their
own food. About half the children involved in the study were teenagers.

The children and teens in the study ate an average of 645 calories per meal before and after the labeling rules took effect. Nearly 60 percent of the children said they had noticed the calorie counts on restaurant menus
before ordering, but more than 90 percent said the labels didn’t influence how they ordered. Even when parents ordered the food for their children, the calorie information on menus had no effect on how much
the children consumed.

The findings are similar to those reported in a 2009 Health Affairs study by the same researchers, who found that the ordering habits of 1,156
low-income adults in New York were largely unaffected by the food labeling law.

The authors noted that the study size was small, and that a larger study or one focused on a different demographic might produce different results. However, other food labeling studies have produced similar results,
showing little change in eating habits before and after restaurants add calorie information to menus.

Brian Elbel, assistant professor of medicine and health policy at the New York University School of Medicine and lead author of the new report, said that the data don’t mean that calorie counts on menus are a
waste of time. Instead, he said, the findings suggest that menu labeling needs to be combined with other public policy efforts aimed at improving the nation’s diet.

“There are a lot of things that go into you choosing the large French fries aside from just the knowledge part of it,” said Dr. Elbel. “These foods taste really good. Just putting the calorie information
up there, I think we know now, is not going to be enough.”

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