McDonald's decision to add calorie counts to menus nationwide reflects a growing pressure to combat obesity—but will it help?
The move preempts a stipulation that's part of the federal health care bill, in which restaurant chains with more than 20 locations will be required to post calories in their stores. And though the national aspect of the law is new, McDonald's has been posting calories in cities with a municipal law requiring them—New York City and Philadelphia—and in some foreign countries that require the same, including Australia, South Korea, and the U.K.
The logic behind the idea of calorie posting is that it will educate consumers about how many calories they are about to eat, in the hopes that this will, in turn, curb problems related to overeating, such as obesity and diabetes. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the Associated Press that she also believed the calorie lists would provide some industry regulation, as corporations would be embarrassed to list sky-high calorie counts for their diet-busting sandwiches and other items.
But will the move actually whittle our waistlines? In places like New York City, where publicly listed calorie counts have been mandated since 2008, an unintended testing ground has provided some insight for public health researchers, who haven't necessarily found the dramatic reaction they'd hoped for.
One New York University School of Medicine study conducted in 2011 of adult-accompanied children and teens of four chain restaurants in low-income neighborhoods found that, although customers took note of the calories listed on the menu, their receipts indicated that they bought no fewer calories at the register.
The researchers evaluated New York City patrons before and after calorie counts were made mandatory and then looked at a comparison group in Newark, N.J., where no such law went into effect. Half of the teens took note of the calories, but continued to purchase an average 725 per register trip. Further, 25 percent of parents who were buying children's meals noted the calories, but continued to purchase about 600 calories at a time for their youngsters.
In an initial study from the same research group in 2009, Dr. Brian Elbel and colleagues found that the number of calories purchased actually rose after the calorie counts went into effect from 825 per purchase before the listed calories to 846 after listing.
On the other hand, a study of teens in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore found that posting calorie counts near beverage cases had a profound effect on purchasing decisions. In fact, the teens were 40 percent less likely to buy a full-calorie drink after seeing the number listed than they were when no such information was in the store.
Still, in yet another study, researchers from Stanford University found that Starbucks customers bought, on average, six percent fewer calories per trip after New York City's 2008 law went into effect. For comparison's sake, the researchers looked at Philadelphia and Boston, where there was no change in calories. Interestingly, people didn't budge on their beverages of choice, but instead either bought less food or chose lower-calorie food options. Of note, the researchers—from the Graduate School of Business—found that the reduction in calories didn't mean less revenue, in fact, for stores with a close-by competitor, posting calorie information actually boosted sales.
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