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Calories on Menus Don’t Change Kids’ Choices

Study Suggests Calorie Labels in Fast-Food Restaurants Won’t Ease Obesity Epidemic
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 15, 2011 -- Listing calories on the menus at fast-food restaurants doesn’t seem to affect kids' choices or those that their parents make for them, finds a small study in the International Journal of Obesity.

“Labeling is not going to be enough to influence obesity in a large scale way,” says study researcher Brian Elbel, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine and health policy at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

Part of the problem is that unhealthy, calorie-laden foods are often directly marketed to kids. “Numbers can’t compete with Ronald McDonald,” he says.

Cost is also a hard-to-beat factor. “Unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food and the gap is getting wider,” Elbel says.

Checking the Impact of Calorie Listings

Researchers analyzed receipts and surveys from 349 kids and their parents as they were leaving McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or KFC both before and one month after mandatory calorie labeling took effect in New York City in 2008.

Results were compared to a group in Newark, N.J., where there was no mandatory calorie labeling. Fully 90% of study participants were from racial or ethnic minority groups.

There were no differences in the number of calories purchased before and after the labeling went into effect, the study showed. One month after this initiative, 57% of teens in New York and 18% in Newark said they noticed the information, but just 9% said the calories made them think twice about which food items to purchase.

So what does affect kids’ food choices? Taste was most important, and price was a consideration for more than half of teens in the new study.

“This is a pretty small study in low-income areas,” says Elbel. “A larger study could have different results.”

More Education Needed

“Part of the problem is that there is no real education about what these calorie levels mean,” says Kelly Sinclair, MS, RD, a dietitian at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “If they don’t know how many calories they are supposed to have, how can calorie labeling guide them to a different choice?”

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