Do calorie labels affect how kids purchase fast-food?

There has been no shortage of debate and controversy regarding the effectiveness of calorie labeling, as first instigated in New York City back in 2008. For the most part, the currently available evidence would suggest that at best the positive effect of calorie labels on eating behavior is minor.

I was just visiting NYC recently, and it took me 2 days to finally take notice of the fact that calories were posted in many places – such as Starbucks. Somehow I was completely oblivious to that information, until my fiancee mentioned it to me. Part of the issue is that menus can already be overwhelming in terms of quantity of information to process, and adding more numbers simply results in information overload (for me anyways).

As my personal example, and the findings from the available research suggest – calori labels are only modestly effective, if at all.

A new study just published ahead of print at the International Journal of Obesity assessed how youth respond to calorie labels at fast food outlets.

The results are also not very encouraging.

While 57% of the youth surveyed after dining at a fast food ‘restaurant’ reported noticing the calorie labels on menus, only 9% suggested that this information had any impact on their choice of meals or their decision to purchase a lower-calorie option.

In the study, the researchers approached children and adolescents dining at either McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (just slightly creepy).

Specifically, a research team of 3–4 individuals visited selected restaurants during lunch (generally 12:30–3:00 PM) or dinner hours (4:30–7:00 PM), most of them in NYC but also some in Newark, New Jersey acting as the comparison control condition (at the time of the study calorie labels were not yet enacted there). Additionally, data was collected pre and post calorie labeling was initiated in NYC.

The data in this study consisted of the participants receipts and their response to a quick survey.

In the end a total of 472 children and adolescents were surveyed.

During the average meal, kids consumed approximately 650kcals. This number was exactly the same before and after the calorie labels were put up in NYC, and also the same between NYC (with calorie labels) and Newark (without calorie labels).

Another discouraging result of this study was that kids were just as terrible at estimating the caloric content of the food they consumed even after the calories were displayed on the menus. On average they underestimated the calories by a whopping 450kcals!

So, at present, while calorie labels on menus definitely seems like a fantastic idea, on its own it is unlikely to change food choices for the large majority of the population.


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2 Responses to Do calorie labels affect how kids purchase fast-food?

  1. Cass says:

    I can see how calories wouldn’t determine what you order but how do you underestimate the number of calories consumed when they are listed right there?

  2. Cath S says:

    There are other potential impacts of calorie labeling that haven’t been considered in the current study or the blog. For example, regulations regarding caloric labeling may lead fast food chains and restaurants to reformulate their products to have less calories thus impacting the nutritional value of the food purchased and consumed by the public. In addition, I’m not sure what kind of supports, if any, New York has in place to help raise awareness and educate consumers regarding the calorie labeling on menu boards. There is potential for campaigns and education regarding caloric labeling to further support consumers in making healthier choices when eating out. Having said this, the evidence regarding the impacts of including calories on menus and menu boards is sparse and may have unintended consequences, however just wanted to make note of these factors that weren’t discussed.