While mandated calorie count labels in New York City’s chain restaurants did not necessarily reduce the overall consumption of fast food diners, more people are starting to pay attention to nutritional quality of what they're being served; now, food establishments are heeding the call for healthier options.
A research team from Langone Medical Center at NYU found that some six years after the city required calorie labels on menus of chains with over 15 locations, the overall number of calories eaten by consumers did not decrease.
The team, writing in the Health Affairs journal this month, analyzed data from 7,699 fast food diners in NYC and nearby cities in New Jersey. Their comparison of orders in establishments with and sans calorie counts was considered the first long-term analysis of mandated menu labeling in the country.
"[M]enu labeling, in particular at fast-food restaurants, will not on its own lead to any lasting reductions in calories consumed," suggested study senior investigator and associate professor of population health Dr. Brian Elbel of NYU Langone.
The study also aimed to offer early evidence of the potential impact of calorie counts in chains and other retailers that sell prepared food, as labels will be mandated nationwide starting December next year.
The average calorie count based on customer purchases back in 2008 – when NYC initially implemented menu labeling – was found to be statistically the same as those between January 2013 and June 2014. It averaged 783 calories for every meal for labeled restaurants during the former, and a close 804 to 839 for every meal for the latter period.
The researchers derived data from surveys and receipts at major chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s.
Dr. Elbel noted that while calorie count labels did not appear to make so much dent, there is still reason to be optimistic: previous and current research showed some awareness level when it came to the calorie counts of fast-food treats.
"People are at least reading the information, some are even using it," he said, citing that 51 percent or half of those surveyed in 2008 reported they noticed the calorie counts, while 12 percent said it influenced them in choosing a product with less calories.
There is another ray of hope: a separate study published in the same journal proposed that the benefits could manifest in restaurant offerings themselves.
Johns Hopkins University researchers, using a database collecting calorie information from 66 major American chains, compared menus of chains with voluntary nutritional labels in all their stores around the U.S. with the rest.
Voluntarily posting chains had menus that were almost 140 few calories per item. The calorie-filled items are still there, but “there are more healthier options on those menus” that drive down the per-item average, according to study co-author Julia Wolfson.
New items introduced in 2014, too, were seen to be nearly 110 few calories at an average compared to competitors’.
Mandated calorie count labels are part of the drive to curb the obesity epidemic, now afflicting an estimated one-third of American adults. The statistics are expected to increase by 42 percent by year 2030 and remain one of the highest among developed nations, Dr. Elbel warned.
Photo: Reyner Media | Flickr