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Caloric Labeling Has Little Effect on Food Choice

Posted Feb 21 2011 2:31am
After a rough day at work, a tiring afternoon of studying, or an exhausting day chauffeuring the kids around, sometimes the easiest thing to do is grab dinner at the nearest fast food restaurant.

Last time I was at a fast food restaurant, I thought I'd order a kid’s meal because maybe then, I would feel less guilty about eating fast food. I looked at the nutrition information (which is now on every fast food item, thanks to the Affordable Care Act ) and thought, “Criminy! That little meal has half of the calories I am supposed to eat in a whole day! AND I've already eaten one meal today!"

A recent study published online by the International Journal of Obesity sheds light on the effects nutrition labeling has on the number of calories purchased by parents for their kids at fast food restaurants. The small study also suggests that labeling has no effect on what kids choose when they go through a drive-thru.

New York City began mandatory labeling at chain restaurants in 2008 to help people make healthier food choices. Since then, the average number of calories that parents purchase for their kids have not changed. The average number of calories purchased before and after the labeling change was 645 calories. To put that into perspective, kids between 4 and 8 years old should have about 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day, according to the American Heart Association . The average number of calories purchased is almost half of the daily calories needed for this age group.

The study suggests the effects of the policy has are too small to influence obesity. Researchers suggest that this policy should be combined with other approaches.

Researchers conducted their study at fast food chains in Newark, New Jersey and in New York City. They found that most of the younger patrons were at the fast food chain without an adult. Fifty-seven percent of the adolescents said they noticed the caloric information and only 9% said they considered the information when ordering.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation , the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the NYU Wagner Dean’s Fund, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute .

Elbel B, et al " Child and adolescent fast-food choice and the influence of calorie labeling: A natural experiment " Int J Obes 2011
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