Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Unintended Consequences Of Fast Food Calorie Counts

New York City implemented a mandatory requirement that fast food restaurants offer calorie counts for their food items sold at their restaurants throughout New York City in July 2008. Well, things haven't exactly worked out as the so-called health experts thought.

Instead of reducing caloric intake, a study found that people actually consumed more (via Gothamist).
Influence of labeling on the nutrient content of purchased food. People in New York City purchased a mean number of 825 calories before menu labeling was introduced and 846 calories after labeling was introduced (Exhibit 2). The number of calories purchased in Newark before and after labeling also did not appreciably change (823 calories before labeling and 826 calories after). Similar results were found for saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, with no appreciable or significant differences before or after labeling was instituted.23
Caloric intake increased regardless of age and gender among those studied in New York City. The original law was imposed after a cursory study claimed that those consumers of Subway stores where the calorie counts were voluntarily posted consumed less calories.

This is actually the first rigorous study of the calorie count, and the results suggest that the law didn't exactly work out as intended. In fact, it suggests that those who were affected by the calorie counts ate 36 calories more than had they ignored the counts.

The study's authors suggest more education of consumers is needed.

So, what's the answer for the nanny staters in New York City? As the NY Times reports, the proponents are not sure what they can do, but they're looking into it.
The findings, to be published Tuesday in the online version of the journal Health Affairs come amid the spreading popularity of calorie-counting proposals as a way to improve public health across the country.

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

New York City was the first place in the country to require calorie posting, making it a test case for other jurisdictions. Since then, California, Seattle and other places have instituted similar rules.

Calorie posting has even entered the national health care reform debate, with a proposal in the Senate to require calorie counts on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants.

This study focused primarily on poor black and Hispanic fast-food customers in the South Bronx, central Brooklyn, Harlem, Washington Heights and the Rockaways in Queens, and used a similar population in Newark, which does not have a calorie posting law, as a control group. The locations were chosen because of a high proportion of obesity and diabetes among poor minority populations.
So, if labels are insufficient, what else can be done that doesn't constitute coercion or banning of food items? That's clearly where the nanny-staters are looking since this move didn't work out as intended. Increased education may not result in any changes as the authors of the study note. That leaves few options.

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