Calorie Labeling Works at Fast Food Joints

Fast food chains used to be “fat food” chains, but maybe not for long. By empowering consumers with calorie content information, diners indeed consume fewer calories, according to a new study. For the study, the researchers analyzed the lunchtime caloric intake of fast food diners from 168 fast food restaurants in New York City in both 2007 and then again in 2009. In 2008, a law was passed requiring all major chain restaurants in New York City to list the calorie content on their menus. According to the research, “Customers who reported using the calorie information after regulation purchased 106 fewer calories, on average, compared with customers who didn’t see or didn’t use the information.” Only about 15 percent of the diners reported using the calorie information prior to ordering their lunch.

Before we think that calorie labeling at restaurants alone is going to save the obesity crisis, the average calories consumed per meal was still well north of 750 calories at most of the fast food restaurants. Plus, many fast food meals are high in “empty calories,” which are not nutritionally valuable. The foods are highly processed, oftentimes fried, and loaded with salt and sugar.

Interestingly, the only chain to see an increase in the calories consumed was our healthy fallback fast food chain — Subway. That’s right, the researchers found a “significant” increase in the calories consumed from 749 to 882 calories per meal. Though they have no explanation for this, in part they wonder if the $5 footlong super-sized submarine sandwich promotion may be to blame. Other research suggests that diners of Subway might experience the “health halo.” The “health halo” happens when people trick themselves into believing something is, for example, low in calorie when it is labeled organic. Subway is marketed as the “healthy” fast food restaurant. Diners who reward themselves for choosing healthy meal options are more likely to load up on treats like chips, cookies, and high calorie sandwich toppings. According to that study, “seemingly influenced by the “health halo,” consumers believed that a 1,000-calorie meal at Subway actually contained 21.3 percent fewer calories than a 1,000-calorie meal at McDonald’s.”

The present study found that when people had a broader menu to choose from, they were more likely to choose wisely. The calorie labeling may indeed be pressuring chains to include some healthier menu options. Since calorie labeling laws came into effect in New York, “chains that introduced new lower calorie menu items were among those that showed a reduction in mean energy content per purchase. For example, of the surveyed customers of Au Bon Pain (which launched its “Portions” menu in March 2008), 30 reduced their energy content per purchase by 14 percent, and of the KFC customers, which added grilled chicken to its fried chicken menu in April 2009, 31 reduced their energy content per purchase by 6 percent.”

Want to trim 100 calories off your meal? Look for and read the posted calorie counts before you order.

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