Do Those Calorie Counts That Restaurants Must Display Work?

Personal Health

How often do you count your daily calorie intake? For some in society, this consideration factors heavily into their daily diet decision making. For other Americans, however, these numbers likely hold about as much significance as receiving weather updates in Celsius.

Despite these varying perceptions, calorie counts remain one of the prevailing methods adopted by policymakers for addressing obesity and other diet-related illnesses in the United States. As of May next year for instance, chain restaurants with over 20 branches will be required to display the number of calories beside each menu item, per a provision included in the Affordable Care Act.

In 2008, the first measure of this kind was adopted in New York City. The policy, lead by the city’s mayor at the time — affectionately nicknamed by critics “Nanny Bloomberg” — proposed implementing restaurant calorie counts alongside the well publicized banning of large sodas.

The soda ban stumbled but though the calorie-count rule received a huge pushback by members of the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), who sued twice, it eventually passed. 2,000 restaurants were subsequently mandated to display calorie counts with "a size and type-face as least as large as the name of the menu item or the price."

The New York City Health Department stated at the time: "The new requirement will help enable customers to see this information at the point of purchase, where it can help them make more informed choices."

Like warning labels on cigarette packaging, this measure is intended as a deterrent. It seems logical — make people aware of just how much they are consuming and how their consumption is affecting their health, and they’ll eat less. Several years after the fact, though, and in light of its more recent national implementation what we should be asking is, does it work?

In a recent City Limits article it seems the short answer to that question is not really. Quoting a recent study by NYU Langone Medical Center researchers, the article’s author Batya Ungar-Sargon reported that “there were no statistically significant changes over time in levels of calories or other nutrients purchased or in the frequency of visits to fast-food restaurants.” Added to this, Ungar-Sargon included the study’s damning conclusion.

"Menu labeling at fast-food chain restaurants, which the Affordable Care Act requires to be implemented nationwide in 2016, remains an unproven strategy for improving the nutritional quality of consumer food choices at the population level."

For those skeptical of just one study’s figures, the article included several other studies with similar conclusions. One in particular stands out for its findings, drawn from the analyzed data of 1,156 receipts of food purchased in New York City and Newark. According to this study, published in Health Affairs, researchers discovered that there was no real difference in calorie consumption, even after half the respondents reported noting the calorie information.  

Perhaps even more damning, albeit laughable, observation was the respondents from this study who claimed to have taken calorie information into account when making their selection. "We found that 27.7 percent who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices,” read the study. “However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling."

So then what’s even the point of this policy?

Charles Platkin is a professor at Hunter College and City University of New York School of Public Health, who published his own study on calorie-labelled vending machine purchasing habits. In an interview with Ungar-Sargon, Platkin explained that one of the major problems behind calorie labelling was consumer's understanding. "Calorie information is like going to a foreign country and not knowing what their currency is worth," said Platkin, arguing that given calories perceived abstract value, people are less inclined toward taking it as a serious health concern.

That said, Platkin said there is still merit in adopting the calorie count policy. "It creates awareness for the population, something to talk about. It also impacts policy makers; they are thinking about calories and other policies to help people choose better, eat more fruits and vegetables."

In the same way it still took years following warning around the dangers of tobacco to take hold, perhaps the same could apply to binge-eating calorie fiends. As Ungar-Sargon concludes, if such stigma can eventually take hold, who knows chain restaurants might one day even seek out “healthier options” for their menus.

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