Is posting calorie counts on menus back-firing?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 15:32
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Oops.  Since the New York City law requiring fast food restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus has gone into effect, researchers found that the average calorie count per order has gone UP slightly–even though about half of consumers think that the calorie counts help them make healthier choices.

The entire study is described in this article in the New York Times. However, before we conclude that the calorie count laws are a bust, keep in mind that the researchers purposely targeted low-income populations. The rates of diabetes and obesity (and fast food consumption) are highest in low-income populations. And this study does suggest that the labeling laws have had no positive effect in those groups. 

For many, it's the price, not the nutrition that counts

I think this quote, from Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is key: “Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people…"

Since the economic down-turn, fast food chains have been pitching the low-cost of their food. If you need to get your calories as cheaply as possible, you can hardly do better than 825 calories (the average meal total) for a couple of bucks.

Clearly, if the only goal of calorie disclosure in fast food
restaurants was to help recession-stressed, low-income, high-risk consumers to make more
healthful choices, it has failed. But I hope that a similar study currently underway by New York City pubic health officials will include a broader cross-section of the population. My gut tells me that the calorie counts may have had a much more beneficial effect in other sectors. 

As for this high-risk population, clearly we're not going to make much progress until we can find a way to make healthier choices as convenient and inexpensive as burgers and fries.

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