Spring 2014

Fast-food Calorie Alert

Posting the numbers in restaurants is just a first step in changing consumer behavior

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Illustration: Marc Rosenthal

The Federal Affordable Care Act now requires restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post the calorie content for all drink and food items that regularly appear on their menus. The provision is meant to warn customers away from high-calorie offerings and help stem the nation’s obesity epidemic.

But according to a recent story in HealthDay Reporter, a poll of 2,000 fast-food customers in Philadelphia showed that few people made any use of the information—if they even noticed it. “Forty percent of the sample saw it, and about 10 percent [overall] said they used it and reported to us that they purchased fewer calories,” said study author Brian Ebel, an assistant professor of population health and health policy at the New York University School of Medicine. The study appeared in the November issue of Obesity.

Ebel’s team interviewed patrons at McDonald’s and Burger King outlets and asked them a series of questions, including how often they visited fast-food restaurants and if they had noticed the calorie information posted on the wall. The team conducted the survey both before and after the required posting went into effect in Philadelphia.

“Providing calorie information is not enough,” Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and the Gershoff Professor at the Friedman School, told the Reporter. “If we want people to use the information, we need to raise awareness about its availability and, most importantly, educate about its use.”

Lichstenstein suggested that the next logical step would be to study whether an informational campaign would make consumers more aware of the restaurant calorie postings.

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