Calorie Labeling Not Influencing Eating Choices For Teens

Obesity is becoming a huge public health issue, especially among children. There seems to be an information gap among kids and their parents about deciding the right food to eat, especially when it comes to fast food. New laws have suggested that labeling the number of calories in each fast food item may help people make informed decisions regarding their choice of fast food. This study was conducted to see if labeling helps children and teenagers choose differently. Results showed that labeling did not affect choice at all.

Rising rates of obesity have led to widespread public healthcare measures being introduced and awareness campaigns being conducted to help consumers reduce their overall intake of calorie-rich foods. The first step in this campaign involved calorie menu labeling on all foods that were commercially sold. This step was initiated in New York City in 2008. The policy innovation was initiated to make sure that consumers would read a menu label and then make informed and healthier food choices. However, some experiments have shown that “caloric information or nutrition is not a major consideration in food selection. Taste, hunger, peer preferences and other factors appear to be more important.” This study was conducted to see if calorie labeling of fast foods affects buying choices, especially in the socioeconomically challanged communities.

* The experiment was conducted in the low socioeconomic areas of New York City and Newark, New Jersey. Newark was taken as the city to be compared with New York. Comparisons were made before and after calorie labeling.
* The experiment involved large fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
* The study included 349 children and teenagers within the age range of 1 to 17 years. Of these, 69 percent visited fast food places with their parents and 31 percent visited the places alone. Ninety percent of the children in the study belonged to racial and minority ethnic communities. They were interviewed before and after food calorie labeling. They were also asked about the number of calories that they should consume to remain healthy.

* The results revealed that 35 percent of teenagers consumed fast food at least six times per week and 72 percent said that it was taste that mattered the most, while choosing food.
* There was no difference in buying patterns before and after the labeling.
* Almost 57 percent of teenagers were aware of the food labels, but only 9 percent paid attention to them when choosing their foods. A vast majority of the consumers underestimated the amount of calories that they could consume per day.
* Thirty percent of teenagers reported that they never relied on their parents while choosing food. However, 57 percent of the parents who accompanied their children said that they chose what their child could eat.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The authors note that since most of the teenagers quoted less number of calories than a healthy adult should consume, they could have misunderstood the question. The answer also shows that the children need to be educated regarding calorie values and a healthy amount calories that should be consumed. This might increase the effectiveness of the calorie labels. The short study period and the small group of study participants may be among the few shortcomings of this study, according to the authors. Further studies exploring the effect of parental choices and influence on a child’s eating is also suggested.

This study showed that teenagers as well as parents, especially among socioeconomically challanged communities, may look at food calorie labeling but do not always change their buying patterns based on the information. The study also reveals the lack of knowledge regarding healthy amount of calories that should be consumed by a person. In other words, the public health initiative of food labeling may not be a success among these communities, unless the people are educated about food calories and healthy eating. Also, future studies involving larger populations could throw more light on the effects of these labels on the purchasing behavior among children and adolescents.

For More Information:
Child and Adolescent Fast-Food Choice and the Influence of Calorie Labeling: A Natural Experiment
Publication Journal: International Journal of Obesity February 2011
By B Elbel; J Gyamfi; New York University School of Medicine, New York, and New York University Wagner School of Public Service, New York

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.


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