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Menu Labels Don't Result in Healthier Food Choices, Study

Update Date: Jul 18, 2013 04:00 PM EDT
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An increasing number of calorie labels are popping up on restaurant menus as policy makers try to tighten the reins on obesity rates.  However, a new study reveals these new menu labels may be a waste of time and effort.

In a new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University put menu labels to the test by investigating whether giving diners recommended calorie intake information along with the menu items caloric content would improve their food choices.

Lead researcher Julie Downs, associate research professor of social and decision sciences in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and her team analyzed the purchase behaviors of 1,121 adult lunchtime diners at two McDonald's restaurants in New York City.

To look at the potential interaction between pre-exiting menu labeling and the addition of recommended calorie intake information, three groups of diners received different information. The first group received information on recommended daily calorie intake, the second group received recommended per-meal calorie intake and the third group received no additional information.  Diners were also asked to fill out surveys to capture diners' understanding of calorie consumption.

The findings revealed no interaction between the use of calorie recommendations and the pre-existing menu labels.  Researchers said this suggests that incorporating calorie recommendations did not help consumers make better use of the information provided on calorie-labeled menus. What's more, the findings suggest that providing calorie recommendations, whether calories per day or per meal, did not reduce the number of calories purchased.

"There have been high hopes that menu labeling could be a key tool to help combat high obesity levels in this country, and many people do appreciate having that information available. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much, even when we give consumers what policymakers thought might help: some guidance for how many calories they should be eating," Downs said in a news release.

"People who count calories know that this is a pretty labor-intensive exercise," she said.

"Making the information available on menus may have other beneficial effects, such as motivating restaurants to change their formulations. But it may be unrealistic to expect many consumers to keep such close, numeric track of their food intake by using the labels directly," Downs concluded.

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