Study of the Day: Why Calorie Counts on Menus Aren't Useful

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Research from Columbia University suggests that restaurants need better guidelines on communicating information to their customers.

Image: Lena S/Shutterstock

PROBLEM: Two years ago, the federal government required restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide nutrition facts on their menus, ostensibly to curb the increasing prevalence of obesity. Can these calorie labels help diners make smarter food choices?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by Columbia University nursing professor Elizabeth Cohn evaluated the calorie counts for 200 food items on menu boards in fast-food chain restaurants in the New York inner-city neighborhood of Harlem. They developed a measure to calculate what constitutes a single serving and the number of calories in a single serving. They then combined this measure with current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines to rate the utility of the information.

RESULTS: Though most restaurants offered basic calorie counts, in the majority of cases there was insufficient information to make use of them at the point of purchase. Complex math skills were needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person or to evaluate nutrition values for customizable and combination menu items.

CONCLUSION: Calorie listings on restaurant menus aren't as useful to consumers as they should be.

IMPLICATION: The authors note that, though their investigation did not focus on actual food purchasing behavior, their work still suggests the need for more comprehensible calorie information on menus. They write in their paper: "As further legislation is developed, we support the FDA in their commitment to having menu boards that are useful at all levels of literacy."

SOURCE: The full study, "Calorie Postings in Chain Restaurants in a Low-Income Urban Neighborhood: Measuring Practical Utility and Policy Compliance," is published in the Journal of Urban Health.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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