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Not so Fast: Menu Labeling is Informing Customers, But Are We Making Better Choices?


fast food menu labelIn 2011, the FDA started to roll out menu-labeling rules for fast food restaurants. Since then, many changes have been made . . . but perhaps not in the way we order.

Are the new laws a step in the right direction or a futile effort that can’t be counted on?

The Law, the Hope, the Numbers

New York and California are two states that have already adopted the practice of labeling the calories on chain restaurants’ menus. This started after a 2008 New York City study found that patrons of fast food restaurants consumed 52 fewer calories per visit if they could see the caloric intake.   And California, whose own 2007 consumer survey shows that adults who eat at fast food chains do so an average of 3.4 times per week, was fast on their heels in hopes of reducing the weight of the drive-thru aficionados.

In fact, the U.C. Center for Weight and Health conservatively calculated in 2008 that, annually, the average fast food junkie could cut their consumption by 9,302 calories. All in all, they estimate that could end up as 40 million pounds lost for the entire state, per year.

After a few of these studies, it quickly became the task at hand. Let’s make sure everyone understands their calorie consumption and save ourselves from the obesity epidemic that is becoming a weight (pun intended) on the national budget and our healthcare system.

There’s only one problem . . . people might not be paying attention.

Studies Show Mixed Results

In 2011, researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and the public health department of Seattle and King County found that in the 13 months after their own legislation was passed, food-purchasing behavior wasn’t changing. In fact, the total number of sales and average calories per transaction between locations with the new menus and those that remained unchanged were identical.

The menu labeling proved ineffective, at least for the short-term.

A presentation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute seems to agree. Dr. Brian Elbel said that in the venues and populations they’ve studied so far, menu labeling has had zero significant impact on consumers’ high-calorie food choices. Although he is quick to point out that he still supports the national mandate by the FDA.

Elbel sees a possibility that labeling menu items could pay off in the long run, as our society slowly begins to gain a total understanding of what we’re putting into our bodies. However, it’s important to realize that the obesity crisis isn’t going to be solved simply because some menu items have little numbers next to them.

But whether it’s ineffective for the masses or not, it definitely helps those small contingents who are hoping for wiser choices when they have to stop at the drive-thru on the way home from work or with their kids. Even if it’s just changing the eating habits of five consumers who would otherwise not realize the massive calorie count in a Big Mac, that still sounds like a bit of a victory.

So, for now, we march on and look for a new reason to get excited about our battle with the bulge . . . while thanking the FDA for trying to think outside of the bun.


Cited Sources

Goldstein, Harold. "Analysis Suggests Menu Labeling Could Help..." California Center for Public Health Advocacy. N.p., 14 Aug. 2008. Web. 7 Aug. 2012. <http://www.publichealthadvocacy.org/menulabelingdocs/Menu_Labeling_Impact_Press_Release_FINAL.pdf>.

"Menu Labeling." CCPHA Research & Reports. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Aug. 2012. <http://www.publichealthadvocacy.org/menulabeling.html>.

Duke Medicine. "Mandatory Menu Labeling Didn't Change Behavior at One Fast Food Chain." - DukeHealth.org. Duke Medicine News and Communication, 14 Jan. 2011. Web. 08 Aug. 2012. <http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/mandatory-menu-labeling-didnt-change-behavior-at-one-fast-food-chain>.

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