Fast-Food Calorie Labeling: Does It Work?

by April Durrett on Dec 16, 2016

Researchers from New York University have determined that adding calorie counts to fast-food menus does not necessarily help consumers make healthy choices.

In a new study, published online in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the researchers found that only a small fraction of fast-food eaters—just 8%—are likely to make healthy choices as a result of current calorie labeling. The study comes just 6 months before a federal policy goes into effect requiring calorie labeling nationwide. The research also recommends ways to improve labeling, to boost the odds of diners making healthy choices.

“Health policies would benefit from greater attention to what is known about effective messaging and behavior change,” said study author Andrew Breck, a doctoral candidate at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “The success of fast-food menu labeling depends on multiple conditions being met, not just the availability of calorie information.”

After 10 Years, Where Do We Stand?

Calorie labeling on fast-food restaurant menus was designed to motivate consumers to change their behavior by providing them with health information. In 2006, New York became the first city to introduce labeling requirements for fast-food chains; Philadelphia and Seattle followed shortly after. On May 5, 2017, calorie labeling will go into effect nationwide, with the Food and Drug Administration requiring all chain restaurants with at least 20 locations to post calorie information.

Despite the rapid and widespread adoption of policies to require calorie counts at restaurants, most studies of calorie labels in fast-food restaurants in places that have already adopted labeling, including New York, have found little evidence that fast-food consumers are changing their behaviors in response to the labels.

These findings may seem less surprising in light of research suggesting that simply providing calorie information may not create change. A framework created by Scot Burton of the University of Arkansas and Jeremy Kees of Villanova University outlined five conditions that need to be present in order for people to be swayed by calorie labeling at fast-food chains:

  1. Consumers must be aware of the labeling.
  2. Consumers must be motivated to eat healthfully.
  3. Consumers must know the number of calories they should eat daily to maintain a healthy weight.
  4. Labeling must provide information that differs from consumers’ expectations of how many calories foods contain.
  5. Labeling must reach regular fast-food consumers.

Study Specifics

In this study, the NYU researchers used Burton and Kees’ framework to better understand why menu calorie-labeling policies have had limited impact. The researchers used data collected in Philadelphia shortly after calorie labeling went into effect in the city in 2008. They analyzed responses from 699 consumers who completed point-of-purchase surveys at 15 fast-food restaurants throughout Philadelphia, as well as responses from 702 phone surveys of the city’s residents.

The surveys helped the researchers understand which of the conditions outlined by Burton and Kees were met. For instance, they asked if consumers noticed seeing calorie information in a fast-food restaurant and if that prompted them to estimate how many calories they should be consuming daily.

Based on the two surveys, the researchers found that a small minority of fast-food consumers met all conditions, and therefore would be expected to change their eating behavior as a result of menu calorie labeling. Only 8% of those surveyed in fast-food restaurants and 16% of those surveyed by phone met all five conditions: they were aware of menu labeling, were motivated to eat healthfully, could estimate their daily calorie intake, were surprised by calorie counts, and ate fast food ate least once a week.

Recommendations of Labeling Improvements

A third of those surveyed by phone did not see calorie labels posted, and nearly two-thirds surveyed at point-of-purchase did not notice the calorie information. As a result, the researchers recommended that restaurants make calorie information more visible to consumers through clear signage and fonts that are large and in a noticeable color.

In addition, the researchers cited past experiments showing that people responded to calorie labeling on menus that included the average recommended daily calorie intake, or explained how much exercise would be needed to burn off different foods. While these experiments have not been used in the real world, these potential labeling improvements may hold value based on the lack of nutritional knowledge in the current study.

One potential upside to requiring calorie labeling is that it may encourage change through a different pathway: It may spur restaurants to reduce the calorie content of existing menu items and provide additional lower-calorie options.

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About the Author

April Durrett

April Durrett IDEA Author/Presenter

April Durrett is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal.