Fast food chains will soon be required to post calorie information on menus but researchers at New York University say that based on the experience of chains that have already taken that step, it won't help. Consumers, they predict, will still make unhealthy food choices.
They've written up their findings in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
McDonalds, Subway, and many other fast food franchises already put calorie information on their menus. While that's laudable, the researchers say only about 8% of customers are digesting the data and using it to order a healthier meal.
Study author Andrew Breck says health policies should focus on what is known about effective messaging and behavior change.
Information by itself is not enough
“The success of fast-food menu labeling depends on multiple conditions being met, not just the availability of calorie information,” he said.
The calorie-posting initiative assumes that consumers will make healthy choices if given the right information. But the obesity epidemic should be evidence that we don't always act in our best interests, even when we know better. Most people know that eating too much food, especially too much of the wrong food, will pack on the pounds. Yet we do it anyway.
The research team says part of the problem is the information about calories simply isn't enough. Consumers need additional information.
First, they must be aware of the labeling. Everyone looks at the menu but not everyone recognizes those numbers beside the menu item.
Motivation is required
Second, the researchers say consumers have to want to eat healthy. Unless they are motivated to do it, they won't.
Third, they have to know what the calories mean. To many, being told the triple cheeseburger and fries has 1,176 calories might not mean anything unless they know that's about half their recommended daily calories.
Interestingly, earlier research done at Arizona State University found similar evidence that most consumers didn't benefit from the calorie information. Those who did, it found, were the most affluent and educated consumers -- consumers who knew how many calories they were supposed to consume each day and were motivated to stay within that number.
This latest study suggests that, until all consumers have a better understanding of calories and have the motivation to eat a healthier diet, they'll probably ignore the soon-to-be-mandated calorie information.