Do Fast-Food Customers Read the Calorie Charts?

Study Shows 15% of New York Diners Look at Calorie Counts on Menus

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 26, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

July 26, 2011 -- A new study suggests many customers of fast-food restaurants aren't taking advantage of calorie information provide on some menus.

About 15% of people who buy fast food in New York City read the calorie information required on menus, the study shows. But on average, customers who used the calorie information bought food with fewer calories.

The study is published online in BMJ.

Researchers say surveys of over 8,000 people in 2009 revealed that about one in six fast-food customers used calorie information when making their purchases.

In New York, since 2008 calorie information on menus and menu boards has been required by law in chain restaurants with 15 or more locations nationally.

Checking the Calories

Researchers zeroed in on fast-food restaurants in New York City during lunchtime hours in the spring of 2007, a year before the regulation, and in the spring of 2009 at 168 randomly chosen locations of the top 11 fast-food chains.

Adult customers provided register receipts and then answered survey questions. Overall, there was no decline in average calories purchased across the full sample -- 828 in 2007 and 846 in 2009.

But significant reductions were recorded at three major chains.

Researchers say average calorie-per-purchase fell by 5.3% at McDonald's, by 14.4% at Au Bon Pain, and 6.4% at KFC.

The chains together represented 42% of all customers in the study.

Researchers say energy (calorie) content increased by 17.8% at one chain, Subway, which promoted large portions.

About 15% of customers reported using the calorie information and, on average, they purchased food with 106 fewer calories than people who did not see or use the posted nutritional information.

Fight Against Obesity

Calorie labeling is only one part of a framework that will help people address how to battle the obesity epidemic by reducing calorie intake, according to researchers. But reducing calories is critical in the U.S., where 33% of adults and 17% of teenagers are obese.

In an accompanying editorial, Susan Jebb, PhD, of the MRC Human Nutrition Research Center in Cambridge, U.K., says that while labeling is a good first step in reduction of obesity, "sustained improvements in the nation's diet will require a transformation of the food supply, too."

Researchers conclude that there is a positive effect of calorie labeling at some major fast-food chains and that use of the information is associated with lower calorie purchases across some fast-food chain restaurants. They also state that special attention should be focused on educating consumers on how to interpret and use nutrition information.