How Calorie Information on Fast Food Menus Affects Purchases

This study aimed at comparing the calorie content of purchased fast food during lunchtime in New York City before (2007) and after (2009) the mandatory provision of calorie information on menus. The study population comprised 7,309 adult customers in 2007 and 8,489 in 2009. The study data was gathered from 168 randomly selected locations of the top 11 fast food chains.  The results were based on customers’ register receipts and calorie information provided for menu items in the restaurants. No major difference in purchased calories was observed before and after introduction of the regulation. However, three major chains, McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain and KFC, which accounted for almost half of the purchases total, showed slight reductions in mean calorie per purchase. Once menu labeling went into effective, one in six lunchtime customers (15 percent of total customers) used the calorie information provided, and chose lower calorie menu than those who either didn’t see or didn’t use the calorie information.

Obesity is an alarming health issue worldwide.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity has more than doubled since 1980, and 1.5 billion adults of age 20 and older, are overweight. The main culprit is frequent eating at restaurants, especially the fast-food chains. So far only limited and conflicting data is available on the effectiveness of menu labeling on calorie intake. This study focused on the impact of calorie labeling on the food menu choice at a population level and considered the longer-term impacts of consumer purchasing patterns.

* Register receipts and surveys were collected for nine weeks from a total of 7,309 customers in spring 2007 and from 8,489 customers in spring 2009 at 168 fast food chain locations during lunchtime hours. The 11 lunchtime chains included McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Au Bon Pain, KFC, Popeye’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Taco Bell.
* The data included details such as the age, sex, and customizations of foods, besides location of store and customer residences, which helped calculate the neighborhood poverty level.
* Calorie information was noted from the websites of each restaurant chain on March 1, 2007 (available only for the Subway sandwich chain) and March 1, 2009 (all chains).
* The number of customers who saw the calorie information in the restaurant and how the information affected their purchase was recorded based on responses to the survey in 2009.
* Statistical analyses were performed to test for differences in mean calorie intake before and after menu-labeling and between customers who used calorie information and those who did not.

* After mandatory provision of calorie information on menus, three major chains with large customer sizes showed statistically significant reductions in mean calorie content per purchase. They are McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain, and KFC.
* Overall, 15 percent of customers reported using the calorie information for their purchase. Women as well as customers from the wealthiest neighborhoods used the calorie information more than the other customers.
* Those who used the calorie information purchased 106 fewer calories than those who did not.  This value was reduced to 96 calories after all associated variable factors were adjusted.
* There was an increase in mean calorie per purchase at Subway.

Shortcomings/Next steps
The research was limited to New York City and the lunchtime meal.  The study did not consider how often the customers opted for fast foods.  In addition, self-reporting by customers did not confirm whether they actually consumed the low calorie food that they purchased. The work also disregarded the influence of taste, price and prevailing social norms on consumer food choices. Thus, additional research is needed for more definite conclusions.

This study strongly suggests that there was a positive effect of menu labeling on calorie intake at some major chains. The use of information was clearly associated with lower calorie purchases across chains. However, calorie labeling is not enough for addressing obesity issues. Educating consumers on using nutrition information for weight-control can lead to more “obesity-consciousness”. Moreover, new policy must be issued for providing low-calorie items in the food chains worldwide.

For More Information:
Changes in Energy Content of Lunchtime Purchases from Fast Food Restaurants after Introduction of Calorie Labelling: Cross Sectional Customer Surveys
Publication Journal: BMJ, July 2011
By T. Dumanovsky; C. Y. Huang; Pardee RAND Graduate School, Santa Monica, CA, and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Chronic Disease, New York, and City University of New York School of Public Health, New York, and Duke Charitable Foundation, New York
*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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