Seeing the calorie count posted next to that bacon double cheeseburger, blueberry scone or even granola-yogurt cup you're about to order can be a major buzzkill. Will it taste as delicious if we can’t delude ourselves about how many calories it's packing? In early December, we're all about to find out, when calorie labeling at fast food chains becomes federal law (right now it's only mandatory in a few cities, including New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle). And as one new study shows, those calorie labels have a surprising effect on fast-food customers.
Most of us are incredibly skilled at denial, as it turns out, or else we just don't care about those numbers. A new study out of New York University, published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, has found that people really aren’t paying that much attention to the calorie counts dutifully listed next to their favorite fast-food items.
NYU researchers looked at customer habits in places where the calorie-labeling law is already in effect (in New York City it's been the law for the past decade), and found that these menu calorie counts really aren't resulting in widespread behavior modifications. In fact, says the study, only about eight percent of people are using the information to make healthier food choices.
As part of the study, researchers examined several conditions necessary to motivate consumers to make positive changes when ordering. That included being aware of the calorie counts; having the motivation to eat healthy in the first place; knowing the total calories they were supposed to ingest in a day; and seeing calorie labels that provide different nutritional information from what the consumer expected for that item. Finally, customers have to actually be paying attention and noticing the calorie labels, which can be hard to do when customers are rushed, distracted and waiting in line in a noisy, crowded place. (And did we mention denial?)
According to one nutrition expert, the findings in this study are not shocking at all. “The reasons why people eat too many calories are much more complex and can't be solved solely by presenting a calorie count for menu items,” Dr. Jennifer Stagg, author of Unzip Your Genes, tells The Feast.
Ultimately, the motivation has to be there to make healthy choices, and a mere sign at a fast-food counter won't provide that push on its own. “We know that a person's genetics, and even the balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract, can influence their food seeking behavior,” says Dr. Stagg. “In light of these findings, I still believe there is value in fast food, labeling particularly for the benefit of the customers who come in already planning to make a more healthy choice." And those labels could have an added and more far-reaching benefit, says Stagg, if they succeed in "influencing these restaurants to offer meals that are less calorically dense and more nutritious.”
So enjoy those deliciously greasy fast-food burgers while you can, because once the federal law kicks in, the treats (which can clock in at upwards of 1,000 calories each) may not be long for this world.
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