Study says calorie counts ineffective

Contrary to popular belief, nutrition labels on menus do not particularly alter people’s food choices.

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Contrary to popular belief, nutrition labels on menus do not particularly alter people’s food choices.

By Thomas Peracchio, Staff Writer

Calorie counts might not affect what people choose at restaurants as much as previously thought, according to a new study. Led by Langone PhD candidate Jonathan Cantor, the study says that nutrition labels have not been particularly effective in changing people’s behavior.

The study, published in Health Affairs, attempted to determine whether calorie labels could influence people into making healthier choices. The team of NYU Wagner and NYU Langone students and professors compared samples of fast food customers from 2008, before the counts were mandated by the Affordable Care Act, to customers from 2013-2014.

During the study, the team sampled from specific locations in both time frames. Four chains with the largest presence in New York City and Newark in 2008 — Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s — were studied.

The team collected data by offering $2 to customers for their order information. Questions asked included whether the respondent saw any calorie information in the restaurant and those who said yes were subsequently asked how the information influenced their decisions.

While the percentage of people who noticed calorie information on the menu jumped significantly, the average number of calories purchased actually increased between the time frames.

Cantor suggested that not understanding what a calorie is might be the reason for these results.

“Our survey also asked how the customer modified their order based on the calorie counts,” Cantor said. “The vast majority of customers reported they ordered fewer calories. As a result, we believe that customers think they are making a healthier decision even when they are not. This is further evidence that a modification to the counts could be useful to customers.”

The study proposed several changes to the way calorie labels are displayed.

“Laboratory studies have shown encouraging responses to the use of stop signs for less healthful foods and exercise equivalents needed to burn the calories in specific menu items, ranking items according to their calorie content or supplementing the existing numbers with the recommended number of calories to consume in a day or at a meal,” Cantor said.

Cantor said educating the public could also make the labels more effective.

“The current format of calorie counts is less than ideal,” Cantor said. “However, if a public health campaign accompanied the posting of the counts, a positive public health outcome could be the result.”

Despite the evidence brought forward by the study, though, others say they do find the calorie counts useful.

Stern freshman Evan Mironov mentioned that they are good for spotting outlier items to avoid on menus.

“When I go to a Starbucks, I might just buy a muffin without really thinking about it,” Mironov said. “But if I see a muffin has like 600 calories, I’m going to think twice and just stick with a coffee.”

A version of the article appeared in the Nov. 16 print edition. Email Thomas Peracchio at [email protected]