Research challenges effectiveness of calorie labelling

Wednesday, 16 February, 2011

A new study led by an NYU School of Medicine investigator challenges the idea that calorie labelling has an effect on the purchasing behaviour of teenagers or what parents purchase for their children.

Calorie labelling is the first significant policy effort to address obesity that has been implemented in the US. Calorie menu labelling is mandated to begin soon across the nation, by the new health reform law called the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010’ (ACA).

Among the claims supporting this policy is one that menu labelling will help people make better informed and healthier food choices.

In 2008, New York became the first city in the nation to enforce mandatory calorie labelling in fast-food restaurants throughout the five boroughs. It is the first attempt of its kind to influence the obesity epidemic by altering the environment in which individuals are actually making their food choices.

In the new study, Dr Elbel and his colleagues gathered receipts and surveys from 427 parents and teenagers at fast-food restaurants both before and after mandatory labelling began in July 2008. They focused on lower income communities in New York City and used Newark, New Jersey (which did not have mandatory labelling) as a comparison city. Data were collected before labelling began and one month after labels were present in restaurants.

Before labelling began, none of the teens in the study said they noticed calorie information in the restaurant. After labelling began, 57% in New York and 18% in Newark said they noticed the calorie information. A total of 9% said that the information influenced their choices, and all of these teens said they used the information to purchase fewer calories. This number is considerably smaller than the percentage of adults who said the information influenced their choice (28%).

However, the study did not find a change in the number of calories purchased at fast-food restaurants after labelling went into effect. Teens purchased about 725 calories and parents purchased about 600 calories for their children.

The way food tastes was considered the most important reason that teens bought it, while price was a consideration for slightly over 50%. Just over a quarter of the group said that they often or always limited the amount of food they ate in an effort to control their weight. The study also reported that most teenagers underestimated the amount of calories they had purchased, some by up to 466 calories.

Parental influence in food choice and childhood obesity is not well understood. Almost 60% of parents said they decided what food their child ate. However, even with greater involvement from parents there was no evidence of less consumption of fast-food calories.

“It is important to further examine the influence of labelling as it rolls out across the country as a result of the new federal law,” said Dr Elbel. “At the same time, it is important to understand that labelling is not likely to be enough to influence obesity in a large-scale way. Other public policy approaches, as well as the efforts of food companies as other actors, will be needed.”

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