Nutrition facts posted in fast food restaurants have no bearing on what parents order for their kids, or what teens choose for themselves, a new study shows.
Researchers surveyed 349 children ages 1-17 who dined at fast food restaurants in New York City, and found that nutrition facts posted in the restaurant did not lead to lower-calorie purchases.
The study is called “Child and Adolescent Fast-Food Choice and the Influence of Calorie Labeling: A Natural Experiment,” and was published Feb. 15 in the International Journal of Obesity.
Posting calorie information became mandatory for New York City’s chain restaurants in 2008. That summer, researchers visited McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and other fast food chains in New York City’s low-income neighborhoods — both before and after labeling was introduced — to record consumers’ numbers of calories purchased.
The study found that parents did not make a significant reduction in the amount of calories they ordered for their children after nutrition information had been posted.
Out of adolescents surveyed, 57 percent reported noticing the new calorie labeling, but only 16 percent reported that this information influenced their choices when ordering.
Of those who participated in the study, 69 percent of children came in with parents, and 31 came in alone. Ninety percent of the survey participants belonged to racial or ethnic minority groups.
The results of this study, while limited to a small area and population, could have negative implications for the new government mandate that chains nationwide list nutritional information openly, a requirement included in the new healthcare act. The idea behind the mandate is that nutrition labeling will help consumers make healthier decisions when ordering food, a result the study shows may not necessarily be guaranteed.
“Labeling isn’t going to be enough by itself to change obesity in a large-scale way,” says Brian Elbel, a professor at New York University, Wagner and co-author of the study. “This reinforces that if it does have an impact it’s not going to be enough.”
Whether what goes on the wall affects what goes on the tray in other regions of the country remains to be seen, but studies suggest that the low impact of nutrition labeling is likely to be a recurring pattern. While adults in other studies were slightly more responsive to newly posted nutritional information than the adolescents and children in this study, neither group has shown a significant reduction in calorie count since new labels have appeared.
Elbel says he and other researchers have begun studying fast food choices in Philidelphia, where nutrition labeling was recently introduced. The study includes a wider demographic, in order to see if the same results are obtained on a larger scale, beyond low-income families.