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Study: Menu Calorie Counts Do Not Lead to Healthier Food Choices

Well, well, well.

Starting in December of 2016, all restaurants, stores and businesses that serve prepared food will be forced to display the calorie counts on their menus.  The purpose of this government-mandated shaming exercise, straight from the mouth of the FDA:

“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said. The effort is just one way Americans can combat obesity, she added.

Is it really? A new study suggests not.

"Some six years out from New York City's attempt to curb the obesity epidemic by mandating calorie counts in chain restaurants, researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center have found that calorie labels, on their own, have not reduced the overall number of calories that consumers of fast food order and presumably eat."

The study will be published in the November issue of Health Affairs.

Researchers found that the average number of calories bought by patrons at each sitting between January 2013 and June 2014 was statistically the same as those in a similar survey of 1,068 fast-food diners in 2008, when New York City initially imposed menu labeling. Diners were surveyed at major fast-food chains: McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy's.

Calorie counts in the 2013-2014 analysis averaged between 804 and 839 per meal at menu-labeled restaurants, and between 802 and 857 per meal at non-labeled eateries; whereas, they averaged 783 per meal for labeled restaurants and 756 per meal for non-labeled restaurants shortly after the policy was introduced.

"Our study suggests that menu labeling, in particular at fast-food restaurants, will not on its own lead to any lasting reductions in calories consumed," says study senior investigator Brian Elbel, PhD.

But, say the researchers who were paid partially with a government grant, there is hope. "'People are at least reading the information, some are even using it,' says Elbel, pointing out that among the study results from 2008, some 51 percent of survey respondents reported noticing the calorie counts, and 12 percent claimed that it influenced them to choose a lower-calorie item, even if it did not reduce overall caloric intake."

Even so, people will eventually start to ignore the counts. "Elbel notes that at the start of the 2013 study, 45 percent of survey respondents said they noticed the calorie counts, a decrease from 2008 levels. As the study continued, this number dropped six months later to 41 percent and dropped again in 2014, to 37 percent, in the last set of surveys."

So let me reiterate what we have learned. Forcing food businesses to display calorie counts, which costs them money and is promptly passed down for the consumer to burden, does not "help" people eat fewer calories and in fact, pretty soon people don't even notice the counts on the menu.

What's the point of this?