New research suggests that putting calorie information onto the menus at fast food restaurants will not improve diets.
This study comes as regulation is about to come into force requiring nutrition labelling nationwide.
Study Exploring Calorie Information
Even with the added calorie information on fast food menus, researchers say that only 8% are likely to make healthy choices.
The study was published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, just 6 months before the new regulations are due to come into force. Currently, there are a number of restaurants – including McDonald’s and Wetherspoons – which already include calorie counts on the menu. It is not currently mandatory, but will be when the new policies come into effect.
Andrew Breck from New York University led the research. He says, “Health policies would benefit from greater attention to what is known about effective messaging and behaviour change. The success of fast food menu labelling depends on multiple conditions being met, not just the availability of calorie information.”
Breck and his colleagues were working from a framework that had already been established in earlier research. This framework consists of 5 factors that need to be in place for consumers to make a change. These include consumers being aware of the initiative, being motivated to change their habits, being able to estimate their daily calorie intake, eating fast food once a week at minimum, and being surprised by the high calorie counts.
They took data from 699 consumers in Philadelphia in 2008, using point-of-purchase surveys, along with 702 additional phone surveys. Only 8% at point of purchase and 16% on the phone met the criteria set out by the earlier studies.
In addition to this, three quarters of those surveyed by phone could correctly estimate the number of calories that they consumed on a daily basis. Less than half of those purchasing food at the counter were able to do so. This could indicate that those who eat fast food more regularly are less likely to be aware of calorie issues.
There are already several places around the globe where it is mandatory for calorie information to be included on menus. New York City was the first place to introduce the legislation in 2006, and it was swiftly followed by Philadelphia and Seattle.
Those with food jobs in the UK should be aware that the rules will come into effect across the country from next May. Any restaurant chain with 20 stores or more will be forced to post calorie information, though it may be considered a good practice for smaller chains as well.
This is despite the fact that there is little evidence of any change in the areas where it is already mandatory, including in New York.
So, if you have an executive food job, what kind of changes can you make within your organisation to make calorie counts on menus more effective? The researchers suggest that you should calorie information as clear as possible as well as drawing attention to it through colour or font choice. You should also include recommended daily averages or explain how much exercise is required to burn off certain foods.
The hope is that with calorie content being made more visible, chains will be motivated to incorporate lower calorie meals into their menus.
Professor Beth Weitzman, who collaborated on the study, had this to add: “We know few regular fast food eaters chose fast food because it is nutritious. They instead are motivated by cost and convenience. However, requiring restaurants to make the calorie content of their menu items highly visible could cause restaurants to add new, healthy options to their menus.”