Calorie Information Not Yet Changing Food Purchases

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New York City became the first US jurisdiction to implement legislation on the labeling of restaurant food in July 2008. All menus for restaurant chains with over 15 locations must contain information regarding the calorie content of the food to increase awareness and assist patrons in purchasing more healthy options.

More than 30 U.S. cities and states have introduced legislation to mandate menu labeling, with over 13 bills succeeding in becoming law. Federal legislation is pending.

Unfortunately, however, a recent study has shown that the menu labeling has not changed food-purchasing habits. 1,156 people in low-income, minority New York communities were surveyed, and only 27.7% responded that the seeing calorie information on menus influenced their purchase choices. Of these, 88% indicated that they used the information to purchase lower-calorie options.

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For some patrons, the awareness of calorie levels in food did not influence healthier choices. In fact, in New York City, calories per meal increased by 3% after the labeling laws were put into place.

Because the area studied was lower-income, it is hypothesized that most patrons were more concerned about pricing than about the calorie levels of the food items they were purchasing. The City of New York plans to conduct its own research consisting of over 12,000 people in the next few months.

Awareness alone may not help with the obesity epidemic. Research indicates that weight-loss interventions that are designed to only to educate about healthful choices are generally ineffective. Simply displaying the information about calories, fat, and sodium may fail to translate into behavioral changes of choosing lower-calorie or lower-fat foods. However, menu labeling is an important first step to altering the food environment toward more healthful choices.

The findings from this study were published in the journal Health Affairs and were researched by Brian Elbel and colleagues at the New York University School of Medicine.

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