Menu Calorie Labels Increase Awareness, But May Not Alter Food Choices
New Haven, Conn., October 6, 2009 – Calorie labels on restaurant menus increase consumers’ awareness of calorie content, but the information may not influence them to purchase foods with fewer calories, according to researchers at the Yale School of Management and New York University. Their study "Calorie Labeling and Food Choices: A First Look at the Effects on Low-Income People in New York City" is published today on the website of the journal Health Affairs. The research is the first to evaluate the effect of calorie labeling on fast food choices since the policy was mandated in New York City restaurants in July 2008 as the first major obesity intervention in the United States.
The authors analyzed food purchase receipts and survey responses collected from 1,156 adults at four of the largest fast food chains — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC — in New York City both before and after calorie labeling was implemented, as well as in Newark, New Jersey, a comparison location that had not introduced menu labels. They focused on restaurants in low-income, minority neighborhoods whose populations have an increased risk of obesity and related health problems.
Prior to calorie labeling, the study found no difference in the percentage of people who saw calorie information available through food wrappers, posters, and pamphlets in New York City and Newark. After calorie labeling was instituted, there was a sharp increase in the percentage of New York City respondents — 54% — who reported noticing calorie information, while there was no change in Newark.
In New York City, 27.7% of respondents who saw the calorie labels reported that the information influenced their food choices, and of those, approximately 88% indicated that they purchased fewer calories. However, when the researchers examined their food receipts, they found that these consumers did not actually purchase fewer calories. Respondents in New York City purchased an average of 825 calories before calorie labeling was introduced and 846 calories after.
"The take-away isn’t that menu labeling doesn’t work, it’s that it might not be effective in isolation," says study co-author Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. "There needs to be other concurrent interventions, such as educating people about daily caloric intake."
The study’s co-authors are Brian Elbel, Rogan Kersh, and L. Beth Dixon of New York University.