You walk into a McDonald's, look up at the menu board and try to decide what to order.
After looking at the price, do you notice the calorie total for the item? And if you do notice, does it influence your decision about what to order and what not to order?
Those are questions researchers at Arizona State University set out to answer, measuring the effectiveness of the calorie postings that McDonald's has been providing for 3 years, and which all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations will have to provide by the end of this year.
Not everyone benefits
What the researchers found is the more affluent and educated a consumer is, the more likely they are to notice and use the calorie data.
Overall, they found that approximately 60% of participants in their study noticed the calorie menu labels but only 16% reported using the labels to determine food and beverage choices.
Customers with higher incomes were twice as likely to notice the calorie labels and three times more likely to use them.
The study is the first of its kind to examine the likelihood of customers noticing and using calorie menu labels in fast-food restaurants in a mixed income and racially diverse sample of adults.
“Studies show consumers and nutritionists alike have trouble estimating the calorie and nutrient content of a restaurant meal,” said Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a nutrition researcher at the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State. “Because fast food is a popular choice among Americans, we wanted to see how effective menu labeling was and if it helped customers make healthier choices. What we found, however, was that while the majority of customers noticed the labels, a very small percentage reported using them to influence their purchasing decisions and customers with lower income and lower education levels reported using menu labels to a much lesser extent.”
For someone who wants to control their daily caloric intake, having calorie data when considering what to order is a helpful tool. But the researchers say it's only helpful if you use it.
Its presence at fast food restaurants is particularly important, they say, because fast food is the second-largest source of total energy in the diets of children and adolescents in the U.S. Other studies have linked frequent fast food meals with greater weight gain and obesity, leading to a wide range of chronic health issues.
When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, it wrote into the law the requirement that all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide be required to post calorie information on menus. But if consumers ignore the calorie data when ordering, what good is that?
The Arizona State researchers say what may be lacking is context. When a consumer sees that a Double Quarter-Pounder with Cheese has 740 calories, what are they to make of that information?
That may be rectified by the new law, about to take effect. In addition to listing the calorie content, the new rules require menus and menu boards to include the statement, “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”
That statement was not present when the Arizona State researchers conducted their study and they say it could make a difference.
“Including a statement with the daily calorie recommendations is key because it provides customers with the necessary context to make calorie labels meaningful,” said Jessie Green, the study's co-author.
Schools could help too, Green says, incorporating calorie computations into curriculum. That way young consumers would better understand how many calories they need in a single day and make healthier decisions when they order fast food.
How many calories you need each day depend on your age, height and exercise level. There are a number of online calculators, like this one, that can help you find your number.