NYC Menu Labeling Increases Consumer Awareness

At NYC fast food chains, 1 in 3 lunchtime customers purchase food containing more than 1000 calories, half of the common 2000-calorie daily intake recommendation.  Good, I got your attention.

In 2008, New York City set the nation’s precedent as the first jurisdiction to require restaurant chains with 15 or more locations nationwide to post caloric information on menus and menu boards.  A study in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that this regulation increases the number of people who see and use this information.

The authors of the study, members of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, surveyed customers 3 months before and 3 months after the enforcement began in July 2008 at 45 restaurants representing the 15 largest fast-food chains in NYC.  These chains included McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and Carvel, spanning a large range of food options.

Nearly 40 percent more customers reported seeing calorie information postenforcement (25% to 64%).  27% of the postenforcement customers that saw the information reported using it.  The percentage of all customers reporting that calorie information had affected their purchase doubled from 10% to 20%.

This study highlights the great success of the regulation in raising individual awareness of calorie consumption.  As the study points out:

If 1 in 4 adults eats fast food on any given day in New York, this finding would translate to more than 1 out of 6 million adults seeing calorie information— and 280,000 adults using that information to make food choices—every day.

Calories may have been previously posted on posters, tray liners, food wrappers, or pamphlets.  Yet, the data clearly suggests that the regulation’s mandate of calorie labeling specifically on menus and menu boards has a substantial impact on customer awareness and use of calorie information.

Despite these growing numbers, it cannot be ignored that 80% of NYC’s fast-food customers still made their selections without considering this information.

Also, the study did not examine what effect, if any, this use of information might have had on the consumers food choices or eating behaviors.  Did the customer change his order upon realizing that the Big Mac at McDonald’s was 540 calories?  Add the Medium French Fries (380 cal) and the Medium Coca-Cola (210 cal), and you’ve broken the 1000 calorie mark.  Or, knowing his caloric intake, did that customer decide to eat a salad for dinner or Subway the following day for lunch?  Or, did he walk the extra few blocks instead of take the subway as he left work or exercise for an hour when he got home?

While testing these possibilities would be difficult, a consumer can at least easily have the calorie content to make an informed decision about his food intake, even if it is an unhealthy one.  More calorie-posting requirements are being passed in other areas, and some talk about standardizing these requirements at state and federal levels has begun.

This  advancement is a big step in producing a more informed consumer.  Yet, when the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s can buy you a tasty McDouble and a less appealing salad costs you four times that, calorie load won’t single-handedly change many consumers’ decisions.

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2 Responses to NYC Menu Labeling Increases Consumer Awareness

  1. Secret Admirer says:

    Wow, Ms. Fourman. What another insightful post. Two points to consider.
    1) Actually, a study has looked at reductions in caloric intake in response to calorie posting and found no effect. Of course, this doesn’t factor in caloric reductions at subsequent meals or changes in exercise patterns.

    2) It’s interesting you mentioned Subway as a “healthy option.” Actually, a study has shown that people eat more calories at Subway than at McDonald’s, possibly by believing that Subway is healthier. The same applies to foods labelled as “low-fat.” This suggests that many people are misguided by nutrition information.

    In my opinion, the only way people are going to eat healthy is through education and incentive. They need to want to eat healthy, while also using basic knowledge and common sense to make good decisions. Actually, I am often skeptical of calorie postings in NYC. A donut for 250 calories at Dunkin Donuts? Why is a Weight Watchers muffin only 60 calories less but tastes so much worse? (Sorry, WW but it’s true.) If the calories posted seem too good to be true, then they should assumed to be false. Bottom line, it would do a world of good if people read nutrition labels and acquired some knowledge of at least how many calories various foods have (while also accounting for the serving!). Nutrition labels for manufactured products have more quality controls than the ones in restaurants. After doing this for several months, people will have a better working knowledge of calories and will be able to approximate their caloric intake at restaurants, dining halls, and dinner parties.

  2. larafourman says:

    Thanks so much for the interesting post! The Health Affairs article is very interesting, and the finding about reducing caloric intake is disappointing but not entirely surprising. Many times when I walk into a fast food chain, I already have a general idea of what I want to eat, and I don’t know if I would change my mind upon seeing the whopping number of calories I’m consuming. However, upon being surprised by the number of calories of my meal, I might change what I eat later. Or maybe, I wouldn’t eat my entire meal-portion control.

    What puzzles me is that, of the people in NYC that reported using the menu labeling, 88% indicated that they purchased fewer calories in response to labeling. However, there was no statistically significant difference between caloric intake before and after menu labeling. This finding is somewhat disconcerting: why did so many people report that they were eating fewer calories? I’m sure some of the respondents didn’t want to admit that they were completely aware of the nutrition information but ignored it, but that does not explain 88%!

    I’m a big fan of education, but I’m not as optimistic that people will so readily gain a general knowledge of calories. In fact, one of the biggest problems is not how many calories a food has but that you are only recommended to eat 2000 calories a day. Also, understanding the actual size of a serving size is often lost on many people.

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