A study release by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows evidence that posting calorie information on fast food restaurant menus actually does change consumer behavior.
Girl Eating Fast Food
In July 2008, New York became the first US city to require fast food restaurants to post calorie counts in on menus, a practice that has become a stepping stone for similar rules in California, Seattle, Portland, and other cities in New York.
The decision to require nutrition information on menus is a result of an effort to combat obesity and promote good nutrition, especially for children.
Menu labeling continues to be viewed as a tool for fighting obesity. Currently, about 33% of adults in the US are obese, and another 33% are overweight. Obesity is a condition that increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other medical problems. Being overweight often leads to obesity later in life.
The preliminary results of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene study show that people bought food with fewer calories at 9 of the 13 fast food and coffee chains included in menu-labeling laws that went into effect in 2008.
To gather data for the study, researchers questioned more than 10,000 customers at 275 locations in early 2007 and another 12,000 in 2009.
Statistically significant decreases were found at McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain, KFC and Starbucks. Researchers concluded that diners who saw and acted on calorie information bought food containing 106 fewer calories on average than those who did not notice the postings. Researchers reported to the annual meeting of the Obesity Society in Washington that 56% of fast food customers reported seeing the calorie information.
Contradicting an Earlier Study
An earlier study, by researchers at Yale University and New York University, performed immediately before and after the menu-labeling rule went into effect, found no change in the habits of consumer from low-income neighborhoods. That study included 1,156 adults who ate at Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
Many experts claim that this initial study was performed too soon after the labeling laws went into effect. Consumers were not given the chance to become aware of, and act upon, the new nutrition information.
New York City researchers said, and I agree, that their more recent study better approximates realistic purchase habits because it includes more people over a longer period of time, and represents a wider spectrum of the population, being that it did not limit study participants to low-income neighborhoods. After all, the goal of these efforts is to combat obesity and promote proper nutrition for everyone, not just the ghetto.
Since the New York City and New York University studies were both funded by the nonprofit organization Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we can only assume that the studies were relatively unbiased. This is good news, especially when most food studies are funded by food manufacturers or other organizations with a vested interest in corporate fast food success.
Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner for New York’s Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control, notes government findings that show diners are noticing and acting on larger, more noticeable nutrition labels. She said:
“These results are exciting new findings suggesting that more consumers are seeing and using calorie information and that calories have declined in some of the city’s largest chains. Dietary change is likely to come gradually; it will start with consumers interested in making informed, healthy eating decisions and we hope industry will respond by offering more healthier choices and appropriate portion sizes.”
44% of New Yorkers across the city said they were now more aware of the calorie information on fast food menus. This number is up significantly from 2007, when only Subway included nutrition information.
Marketing Can Undo the Effects of Nutrition Labeling
New York City researchers also noted that some of the positive effects of the new labeling laws can be overridden by aggressive restaurant marketing, especially for kids. The special meals for children, with toys, games, and fun colorful boxes, are a powerful vehicle for encouraging kids to order a cheeseburger with french fries.
Subway, a restaurant chain that has promoted its menu as a vehicle for weight loss and healthy eating, posted calorie information on its menus before labeling laws went into effect. The introduction of their spokesman Jared, who promotes eating 6 inch subs rather than lifting weights, accompanied an increased nutritional awareness for Subway consumers back on January 1st, 2000.
However, since 2008 Jared’s promotion of the Subway Diet has slowly been replaced by Subway’s successful “Five Dollar Foot Long” promotion. The “Five Dollar Foot Long” campaign focuses more on selling 12 inch subs than on eating healthy.
With popular culture stars like Michael Strahan are singing the “Five Dollar Foot Long” song during commercials for every popular TV show, the percentage of Subway customers who bought foot-long subs more than doubled in the last two year.
Lard Burger and Fries
During the study period, which coincided with the advertising switch from “The Subway Diet” to the “Five Dollar Foot Long”, the number of calories purchased at Subway more than doubled. Researchers reflected that the gain in calories eaten at Subway was about equal to the loss in calories eaten at the seven other food chains.
I am sure an aggressive Big Mac Attack promotion could sway consumers away from healthy choices and back towards lard patties smothered in special sauce.