As of March of 2008, fast food establishments in New York City have been required to post fat and calorie counts on menu boards, with the idea being that consumers would at the very least pause and think for a moment before purchasing the same donut every morning. The law was vigorously resisted by food and restaurant companies; obesity researchers didn't know whether the law would lead to a decrease in calorie consumption or to a paradoxical effect known as "portion distortion," where diners and snackers increase the total amount of food they eat to compensate or reward themselves for choosing lower-calorie items. This isn't a parochial NYC issue anymore: both House and Senate health care drafts require most restuarant menus to mandatory calorie counts. The first round of data is now in, and it is, not surprisingly, equivocal.
All the PR firm that was given the task of releasing the results cold say that "preliminary data from New York City show Menu Labels Impact Food Purchases at Some Chains." That they do. The city's health department kept track of calorie consumption at 13 different chains. At four chains, there were statistically significant decreases in the total amount of calories consumed: McDonald's, Au Bon Pain, Starbucks and KFC. Four restaurants saw increases, but only one -- Subway -- saw a statistically significant increase. The study included a self-reporting element, and consumers who knew about the labeling reported eating a little more than 100 calories less than those who did not know about it. (How couldn't they know about it? Have you been to a Duncan Donuts in NYC lately? It's depressing.) Across the city, 44% of New Yorkers surveyed said they were aware of the calorie counts, up significantly from 2007, when only the Subway chain included the information.
For all the hooplah from Subway's "Eat Fresh" campaign, the study concludes that "the effects of calorie labeling may be overcome by intensive marketing of large portion sizes." That's why Michael Strahan is now singing the "Five Dollar Foot Long" everytime you watch sports on television. In two years, the percentage of Subway customers who bought foot-long subs more than doubled.
Bottom line: has the menu labeling helped people live more healthily in New York. Maybe -- but maybe only people who were already living healthier. It's easier for people with access to information about obesity and health infrastructure to use menu labeling to their advantage. Overall, increasing the awareness of calorie contents didn't decrease the total number of calories consumed, and it did not seem to have any effect in areas where the obesity problem is especially acute. (New York City schools may have helped to counter the effects of the labeling when they began to hand out fast food coupons for use in its school breakfast and lunch programs.)
The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.