July 27, 2011

Posting Calorie Counts Changes Customer Food Choices

In New York City, there has been a regulation requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts of their menu items. According to a study published today in the British Medical Journal, the listings are affecting consumer choices.

While overall calorie consumption for the thousands of people tracked did not change, customers of McDonald's, Au Bon Pain and KFC were shown to make significant modifications, according to the study funded by the City of New York and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Advocates of the law wanted to see Americans lose weight, as more than two-thirds of the country's citizens are overweight or obese, conditions linked to health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes.

"We think, overall, these initial findings are positive," Dr. Lynn Silver, director of New York City's Office of Science and Policy and co-author of the report, told Reuters.

The British Medical Journal's website reported that researchers surveyed more than 7,000 people in 2007 and another 8,500 in 2009 at 168 locations covering 11 of the top food chains in the city, BBC News reports.

Fifteen percent reported using the labels and these customers purchased 106 fewer calories than customers who did not use or see them.

Overall, however, there was no significant change in average calorie consumption before and after as some people were consuming more calories in 2009. Subway, the popular sandwich chain, saw a significant increase during the survey because of its promotional offer for a $5, foot-long sandwich. The other chains saw little change in their customers' purchases.

Researchers said it was important if the scheme was going to be more of a success that education campaigns be set up to improve awareness.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health explained, "This is a great example of how calorie labeling can influence the choices people make and lead to a healthier diet."

Beatrice Brooke, of the British Heart Foundation, added, "One in six meals in the UK is eaten away from home so it's essential we know what's in the food we're buying in restaurants and cafes. The New York research shows us just how valuable calorie labeling in fast food restaurants can be."

While New York City was the focus of this particular study, health experts across the country are keeping a close eye on the results. President Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul mandates a similar requirement nationwide in an effort to curb the US obesity epidemic.

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that at least 20 percent of adults in all states, except Colorado, were obese. The CDC also said medical costs related to obesity were estimated to be as high as $147 billion in 2008.


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