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Few Customers Read Nutritional Information In Fast Food Restaurants

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

More prominent displays may be needed to help increase consumer awareness of nutritional information in fast food restaurants, according to an observational study from Yale University that appears in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers visited McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain restaurants in both urban and suburban settings. They counted the number of customers who read on-premises nutritional information which was available on posters, pamphlets or computer terminals in the restaurants.

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Of the more than 4,311 patrons observed, only six (0.1 percent) sought out the nutritional information available in the restaurants prior to making a purchase.

"Clear calorie information is critical to helping consumers make informed decisions about what they are eating," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale and an author of the study.

"It is notoriously difficult to estimate the calories in fast food meals. Polls show that consumers want the information and this study shows how they need it in a more prominent and visible place - right on the menus and menu boards."



Maybe the full study will answer my question, but the summary seems to overstate the data reflected in the summary. The 99.4% who don't look at the information in one observed visit (how much margin for error is there, by the way, when one of the numbers is only 6?) might include: 1) people who looked at the information in one or more of the last thirty times they visited and figure that the medium fries haven't got any healthier; 2) people who basically memorized their consumer reports article on which few fast food choices make nutritional sense; 3) people who bloody well know they ought not wolf down a couple of burgers but are going to do so anyway; and 4) people who, despite patronizing fast food restaurants, actually do have a pretty good sense for calories and/or nutritional density without reading the restaurant's nutritional information (if they can even find what they're interested in; if I were a good boy, I would be watching my vitamin K intake; good luck finding that on the nutritional listing at McD's). Moreover, I doubt that "polls" indeed "show" that "consumers want" this information displayed more prominently. That may be what people say they want [and wouldn't it be tough to poll that question fairly?], but I don't get the impression that Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, et al. leave a lot of money on the table. If that's what consumers actually want, wouldn't the restaurants give it to them? (Granted, markets don't always work perfectly or the way they do in theory, but this market is pretty darn competitive, and I'm having trouble hypothesizing what would stand in the way of the restaurants giving consumers what they want in this instance.) I don't want to suggest a lack of sympathy with the basic view of the article, though personally I find sit-down restaurants more problematic than fast-food ones. Just a few days ago, I ordered both soup and salad. I would have skipped the soup if I knew either or both how dang big the salad was or (a non-nutritional issue to be sure) how overly sweet the soup was. No real clue on the menu at all, and, if they have a McDonald's-like nutritional listing somewhere on premises, I wouldn't know where it was.