NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 9, 2009

In July 2008, New York became the first U.S. city to mandate that fast food restaurants post calorie counts in large type on menu boards.  The system has since become a model for similar rules intended to combat obesity and promote good nutrition being implemented in California, other parts of New York state, the cities of Seattle and Portland and elsewhere. However, the rule has not changed consumer habits in low-income neighborhoods, according to a study published this week.

According to the journal Health Affairs, while half of New York city consumers surveyed said they noticed the labeling, and about a quarter of those said they made different choices as a result, a review of fast food purchases showed habits remained the same.

Other findings:

  • In compiling the data, researchers at New York University and Yale University analyzed fast-food purchases by 1,156 adults at Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and Wendy's immediately before and after the rule went into effect.
  • Nearby Newark, New Jersey, where menu labeling is not required, was used as a control group.
  • The percentage of people aware of the calorie information increased from 16 percent to 54 percent, but the number of calories purchased was slightly higher than before the rule was implemented, researchers found.

Brian Elbel, a professor at the New York University School of Medicine and a lead author of the study, which was conducted in low-income neighborhoods with high minority populations, says that more research needed to be done.

"Though the introduction of calorie labels did not change the number of calories purchased, a combination of public policy efforts are likely necessary to produce a meaningful change in obesity," says Elbel.

Source: Edith Honan, "Calorie Labeling Doesn't Curb NYC Fast Food Habits," Reuters, October 6, 2009; based upon: Brian Elbel et al., "Calorie Labeling and Food Choices: A Frist Look at the Effects on Low-income People in New York City," Health Affairs, October 6, 2008.

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