Customers pay little heed to calories on menus
January 18th, 2011
09:34 AM ET

Customers pay little heed to calories on menus

Posting calories on menus has little effect on what customers buy, according to a recent study.

Customers at TacoTime (a western Washington chain)  who read how many calories are in their chimichangas, burritos and tacos on the restaurant's menu were just as likely to order them as people who don’t have that information.

For 13 months, researchers recorded food purchases at seven suburban TacoTimes and seven inside Seattle, Washington. Seattle passed a law requiring that all fast food chains post their calories, fat and sodium content to the menus in 2009.

Once the law went into effect, public health researchers in Seattle  and researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School compared what people were buying at TacoTimes inside and outside the city.

Contrary to their hypothesis, “We found no difference,” said lead author Eric Finkelstein.  “We looked at the variables – the transactions, total calories per transaction, food, dessert, entrees. We weren’t able to find any effect whatsoever.”

The findings suggest that having calorie information did not change public health behavior.

This may not be totally surprising. After all, obesity rates have continued to soar after pre-packaged foods were required to carry nutritional content, said Finkelstein, an associate professor of health services at Duke-National University of Singapore.

Similar studies about calorie counts in menus have found either small, marginal effects or no difference at all.

“This is just one chain, so it’s possible to find more compelling results in different chains,” Finkelstein said, about the TacoTime’s study.

Regardless, nationwide changes are coming. The health care reform bill, passed last year,  requires fast food chains to post their nutritional information on menus.  The FDA’s rules on for this are due in March.

While calorie info on menus may not unleash widespread weight loss, it could have some benefits, Finkelstein said.

“My sense is that if these laws are to have an effect, it’s going to be on the supply side,” he said, referring to fast food companies.  “If they’re embarrassed about 2,000-calories lunches, they might try to skimp on calories, sodium and fat.”

soundoff (319 Responses)
  1. Heather Jeane

    I doubt it would make much impact on fast food for me. I know when I walk into a fast food joint, I'm going to be splurging on junk food. I do however find myself drawn to the low calorie dishes offered at casual dining places, especially when there is an attractive photo of the dish shown on the menu. I live in a small town, but even here, we have a handful of restaurants with dishes under 500 calories listed and I typically choose one of those.

    January 19, 2011 at 08:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jeff T.

    For me personally, this is untrue. I pay a great deal of attention to these sorts of things, but only when I am already cognoscente of my weight. As is true for most individuals, I go through cycles where lose weight, lose interest, and revert back to my college diet of pizza and coke. When I am in a loss cycle, I always check the calorie count on the foods that I eat, and when I'm in Washington, the calorie count of a meal I am about to order. I actually backed out of a Jack in the Box drive through once after being confronted with how many calories I was about to eat. In another such instance, I ordered a "basket" (akin to a value meal) at Burgerville in Oregon, and was absolutely shocked when my receipt revealed to me that I was about to imbibe 2,200 calories in a sitting. Now to be fair, I ate every iota of that meal, but I haven't ordered a "value meal" since then on account of being confronted with that dirty little receipt-driven caloric fact. I still eat burgers, but I skip the grease infused fries and pop.

    January 20, 2011 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.