For the first time in history, the number of overweight people exceeds the number of underweight people in the world. Since 1980, the number of obese American adults has doubled, and the number of obese adolescents has increased three-fold.
Many believe that the rates of fast food consumption are connected to the rise of obesity in the U.S. One out of every four Americans consumes fast food on a given day. McDonald’s, one of the largest fast food chains in the world, serves over 43 percent of the fast food eaten on a particular day in the United States, in addition to serving 430 million people worldwide.
The labeling of calorie counts on fast-food restaurant menus was designed to encourage consumers to change their eating habits by providing them with health information.
The requirements were first introduced in New York in 2006, and Seattle and Philadelphia followed suit. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires all chain restaurants with a minimum of 20 locations to specify calorie count on the menu.
Disclosure of calorie counts was expected to prompt customers to substitute to menu items with lower calorie intake. Most studies, however, reveal that there exists no evidence that consumers are switching to healthier options in response to the labels. It seems that health awareness was not translated into action, as the majority of consumers continued to eat high-calorie meals.
In King County, Washington, mandatory labeling requirements were imposed on all restaurant chains. Restaurants were required to provide consumers with the nutrition information and calorie count for every food item on the menu. Local public health officials and researchers monitored food purchases during the next year, at several popular local fast-food chains such as Taco Time. The findings suggested that the total number of sales at the restaurant remained unchanged. Another menu labeling program in Seattle led to “increased nutritional information awareness, but no decrease in calories bought by parents or children.”
In New York, after the calorie labeling law took effect in 2008, researchers from New York University surveyed 821 adults at a fast food restaurant. The research concluded that survey respondents continued to consume the same number of calories, before and after the labeling took effect. A report published in 2015 reviewed several existing studies analyzing the impact of menu labeling and found that overall, menu labeling did not produce any significant changes in the number of calories bought by people. Hence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrition Evidence Library concluded, “limited and inconsistent evidence exists to support an association between menu calorie labels and food selection or consumption.”
The way in which consumers respond to labeling usually depends on where the information is presented. For instance, several studies in behavioral economics find that the manner in which information is presented can have a significant impact on its effect. For consumers who are unaware of their daily caloric requirement, the presence of calorie count for all food items on a menu would have little meaning. Hence, it is essential to include suggested total daily caloric intake. Furthermore, although several restaurants now provide calorie counts on their menu, in most cases, there is not enough information to make use of them at the point of purchase.
Counting the number of calories becomes a challenging task when consumers order multi-serving items and combination of meals. A study conducted by Economic Research Service (ERS) found that consumers are less concerned about the quality of their food choices when they eat at a restaurant. Moreover, consumers from low-income groups have the tendency of selecting calorie-dense foods that provide more calories per dollar. For instance, calorie count increases by 140 calories, when a children’s meal becomes a double cheeseburger.
Menu labeling might be the method of choice used by policymakers in an attempt to encourage healthy eating. However, it may not work the way it is intended. Particularly, in low-income neighborhoods where literacy rates are low, it may be helpful to simplify both calorie postings and the math needed to calculate calories. This could increase the utility of the menu boards.