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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 (326 Responses)
  1. Jon

    I am sure most people have mentioned this already but this calorie display has no effect on people who DO NOT EAT FAST FOOD FREQUENTLY.

    The calorie display should remain mandatory for the pure fact of REMINDING those who SHOULD be eating healthier of the decision they are making as opposed to being able to claim ignorance. So when they are caught by Family and Friends on their death bed from complications of obesity they will not be able to say "It snuck up on me!" "I didn't know what was in there!"

    Now you know buddy...NOW YOU KNOW!!!

    January 18, 2011 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Chad

    Sorry, but if someone is at a Taco Bell, McDonalds or something of the like, they are not there to lose weight.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jeanne

    Well, since I view eating out as a TREAT once every month or two and not my regular diet, I most certainly will ignore fat and calories and order what tastes good and appeals at the time, If people stayed home most of the time and fixed their own food on a regular basis, then they could indulge in a yummy steak or fettucine alfredo a few times a year at a restaurant. But people who are too lazy to cook for themselves and their families are going to get fat eating out all the time since the portions are twice that at a restaurant than what you would eat at home.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jojo

    I can't wait. I hope it includes Calories/Carbs/Fat/Sodium. I've had gestational diabetes twice and having that information next to the menu would have been a great resource (even now, as I still try to stick to that way of eating)! Most places make it almost impossible to *easily* find the nutritional information on site or online. I usually check online before going somewhere to plan what I'm going to eat, but that isn't always possible. When I was testing my blood sugar, it was always so frustrating to eat the same thing in two different restaurants and one would send my numbers through the roof. Obviously, there was 'something extra' in that dish.

    No matter what, it's really nice for those who want to make an informed choice to have the option.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MikeDees

    I'm calling fake on those food shots. For one thing, anything you get from Taco Bell either looks like it was stepped on or fell off a truck. I can't even bother to read the story, I'm just baffled by this food photo.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Adam

    We're assuming of course that the nutritional information posted on menus are accurate. In many cases they are not. Many establishments use a simple program that spit out a number after you've entered in whatever ingredients go into a dish. I've seen results like grilled chicken having higher calories than fried chicken...

    January 18, 2011 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Educate

    Those labels do no good if people don't understand them. You'd be surprised at the people that don't understand the labels.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Zenith

    The results of this study really bother me, because for me personally, having calorie amounts next to meal options has a made a BIG difference in what I order. I just can't justify why I should a eat a meal that adds up to 1500-2000 calories. I hope this won't deter other restaurants from putting nutriutional information on their menus, because there are some of us who appreciate seeing it!!

    January 18, 2011 at 14:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Dave

    I think they should put a little silhouette of a fat person on the package, with a dotted line inside to show a normal person.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. dee8th

    Yes, Virginia, there are people to whom calorie counts matter. However, these are not the same people that frequent taco joints.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Audrey

      Oh, I wouldn't say that. There are often several options in a taco joint with between 200 and 400 calories...a reasonable amount for a lunch or dinner. There's no reason that a person who wants to lose weight (or maintain a healthy weight) needs to stay away from such places, if they like them.

      I'll often pop into a Taco Bell or Taco Time when I'm traveling...they're convenient, consistent, and allow me to eat something with some substance to it without overeating (or overspending!). Is it an everyday thing? No. But it's not something a health/weight-conscious person has to avoid like the plague either. Moderation in all things.

      January 18, 2011 at 16:13 | Report abuse |
  11. Dave

    TawnyMarie: A person's political stance is important on this issue. Some of us don't believe the government has the right to make rules forcing companies to put information on packages.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Lee

    So they picked TACO TIME do their study? There is the flaw. A lot of the menu items are already healthy there. Pick McDs or some other place and do the study. Taco Time is one of my go-to places for decent calories. Baja Chicken Taco – 182 calories and 14g of protein or the Chicken fit-hit bowl with 360 calories and 26g of protein.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. SENSIBLE

    I have noticed the calories displayed on the menu, and have reconsidered my purchases prior to ordering. If you ask me, I think that as Americans, we pay little attention to anything and lack focus.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Dan

    How about a line item on our tax forms each year that allows the taxpayer to opt out of paying for health-related illness caused by poor choices, etc.? If you believe that government should pay for the onset of early diabetes, hypertension, et al then you opt in and you are taxed accordingly in relation to the previous years total expense paid for said illnesses. People would have to face their poor decisions from a monetary standpoint and thus be forced to maintain some accountability. People who think government should pay for the decisions of each citizen who be forced to put up or shut up, literally.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Catsmeow

    I think it's too early to make any judgements on the effects of posting calories. Taco Time is probably not a prime example of this either. I dont have a Taco Time, but I'm assuming everything is high in calories, so why would someone standing there looking up at the menu say to themselves...hmmm, maybe I should order the double decker crunchy taco supreme instead of the triple meat and cheese bazooka burrito. Sure they save around 100 calories, but in the end they are still consuming 300 calories for ONE taco! IMO the posting of calories is most beneficial at a "sit down" restaurant where there are a MILLION choices....e.g. Cheesecake Factory. I'm invited to meet friends for dinner at the local CheeseFactory for dinner, not my 1st choice, but I'll find SOMETHING I'm sure. I open the menu and I'm overwhelmed!!! When i finally decide if I want a pizza, pasta or sandwich...I look down the side of calories and go...Shrimp w/ Angel Hair for 845 please! Skip the Pasta Carbonara w/Chicken for 2291.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lee

      They have some things that are high in calories, but they have plenty of healthy choices, which is why the study is flawed. Most people eating at taco time already eat healthier than they would at a different fast food chain.

      January 18, 2011 at 14:47 | Report abuse |
  16. kaplooie

    I actually do look at the calories at the fast food restaurants. I am somewhat health conscious, but I do like to get a burger and fries and nothing bad is going to happen if you eat fast food once or twice a week as long as you are even somewhat active.

    The issue is that the people for whom this is targeted are the ones that don't care and thus are obese. The ones that look at calorie content are generally not the ones with a weight problem.

    It's just like the prison system. It's only a deterrent for those that are generally good people to begin with. If you are a career criminal, prison is a place to hang out and get free housing, meals and medical care for a few years.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Joe Despres

    It was silly to think Calories would matter to anyone but people on a diet. This is america, where people will eat what they want, when they want it, as much as they want, with as much salt on it as they darn well please.
    Go away food nazis.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. BuzzerKiller

    It's only a matter of time before a hamburger or a steak becomes a food you can only get from the black market or how they do drug sales on the street, with the way these health nuts are basically forcing upon us what we should and shouldn't eat.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kyle

      And you deduce this from the fact that we force restaurant to put calorie values on their menu? Sorry but that is the worst slippery slope argument I have ever heard.

      January 18, 2011 at 15:00 | Report abuse |
  19. Aerin Gael

    This study is null and void since only TacoTimes was included. Hardy representative of fast food chains. What about Subway, etc.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Andy666

    What is needed is a big round label that is green, yellow or red, which indicates the fat contents. People are not good with numbers (Well, some are, but many are not). A LARGE RED warning sign I think would help, and the simplicity of three colors would make it obvious to everyone at a glance....

    January 18, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Caloriccount matters

    I went out for breakfast with kids to IHOP and was happy to see the caloric count of their feature meals...2 eggs/hash browns/2 strips of bacon and pancakes...almost 2,000 calories...guess what..we chose meals under 500 calories and stay away from these high caloric meals...maybe the restaurants will offer more meals at or under 500 calories if their customers stop eating these high energy bombs....

    January 18, 2011 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. DirtyBob

    Maybe you should do the testing before you make laws. No wonder we're going down the tubes so fast. It's just a gigantic expensive experiment now.

    January 18, 2011 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Jeff

    If I was going to eat a place like Taco Time, Taco Bell, or any other QSR that is notorious for unhealthy food, why even bother to read the nutrition facts? You know it's going to be bad.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Sarah

    Since this study came from a Medical School they probably didn't look at any qualitative data such as "Did the consumer look at the calories prior to ordering? Did the consumer let the calorie count affect their order i.e. did the consumer order what they usually ordered?" I'd also like to know if there were low calorie options on the menu. If a salad is 1000 calories and a burger is 1100 calories I'm probably going to go with the burger!

    January 18, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Michael Hicks

    If you are eating fast food, are really that concerned about calories????

    January 18, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. This is just like every other law that makes people stupid

    The whole point here isn't to make everyone fit by way of the law, it was to make sure everyone was informed. Putting "Parental Advisory" on a CD doesn't mean that all crime will stop, or even fluctuate, it only means that the people that didn't want that in the first place will know better. You can't measure that because those people would most likely have never bought the product in the first place.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Fuyuko

    I actually find the calories on menus helpful and do not ignore them. When they added this to starbucks, I was surprised at how many calories my regular drink contained. It is now easier to avoid calorie trap items in favor of healtheir choices.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Ty

    Posting Calorie counts is similar to printing warnings on cigarettes. People still smoke despite the awful pictures. Ignoreance at its finest... Maybe we should put pictures of obese people and obsity related diseases on high calorie foods!

    January 18, 2011 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ty

      Posting Calorie counts is similar to printing warnings on cigarettes. People still smoke despite the awful pictures. Ignorance at its finest... Maybe we should put pictures of obese people and obesity related diseases on high calorie foods!

      January 18, 2011 at 15:12 | Report abuse |
    • Colleen Lindsey

      That seems a good idea to me - however they'd probably get sued for it.
      I'm noticing how 80 to 90 percent of both adults and children in San Antonio (my home) are puffed up overweight. And I'm also noticing how magazine, newspaper, and TV photos, nationally, of a general population include the overweight like never before. (by the way I've seen a lot in my 84 years here in San Antonio.)

      January 18, 2011 at 15:29 | Report abuse |
  29. Andagain

    It's not just the obesity issue. I only buy fast food a few times a year, and I'll be darned if I'm going to count calories then...it's a splurge!

    January 18, 2011 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Matt

    Another do-gooder government initative that crashed and burned. Why am I not surprised?

    January 18, 2011 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cason

      Don't jump to conclusions. This seems like a very limited study.

      January 18, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse |
  31. AnneS

    If I am at a restaurant, I buy what I want to eat. The calorie counts (and other information) are helpful to know so I can balance my restaurant meal with the rest of the day. It only makes sense to say people don't pay attention if they are eating ALL their meals out.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. mecatfish

    Why dosent McDonalds offer a bucket of fries?

    January 18, 2011 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Joe

    I love the way law makers think. Before the law was signed the country said it won't make a difference and the resturants said it would put burdens on them and cause extra cost that would be passed onto the consumer. Law is passed and studies show it doesn't change the way people eat. Law maker than says its still benefits the people although you can't see why. Thanks for wasting our tax dollars on worthless laws that make us pay more for the same stuff.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. John Devlin

    Since I don't think anybody was laboring before these postings became mandatory under the assumption that Taco Bell is GOOD FOR YOU, this result is hardly surprising.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. UCFknightman

    If I want a taco from taco time, I know I am getting something unhealthy and riddled with stuff I maybe should not eat. Why is this not common knowledge??? IT'S NOT THE FAULT OF FAST FOOD FOR OBESITY, it's the idiots that eat it....

    January 18, 2011 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Kasey

    I do occassionally eat fast food, and I do pay attention to the calorie counts when available. I use that information to help plan calorie intake for the rest of the day. SO the writer should stop generalizing from one small study. It's the same issue with vaccinations and the study that erroneously linked them to autism. One small study, published on a popular venue like this, is assumed to be the be all end all information when it's only a tiny bit of isolated information.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Michael

    I think people should eat whatever they want. If we could lower the life expectancy of Americans from its current level of approximately 77 years to approximately 55 years of age due to diseases related to obesity it sure would help solve the lack of funding for Social Security/Medicare.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Kamikaze

    What an incredible thing to research on. Of course people are not going to care. I'm a bodybuilder. One day out of the week I throw off my body's regular daily habit and go eat something off the chart. I don't gorge I just eat something different. Doesn't matter what it is. So I walk into TacoTime and order whatever. Now according to the research I don't care about calories. They basically did this research to try and build a case that people don't care what they eat. Did they interview each and every person? Did each person state they didn't care what they eat? Just because someone shows up at a particular restaurant doesn't mean they don't care about what's going into their bodies.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. charles

    When I go out to eat,it is rare to see anyone look at the nutritional information. That does not mean we should stop offering this info. At least the info makes the public think a little bit about healthy food. This is better then no thought at all!

    January 18, 2011 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Katy

    They just started doing this in LA and let me tell you, my behavior HAS changed. I don't do fast food often, but sometimes fast food is the only thing open or the only thing I have time for. I aim for the foods that you'd think should be less bad for you, like chicken instead of beef, but I never look at the back of the box to see how bad it is. I don't want to know. But now I don't have a choice because its right there, before I order, not after. I go for the lower calorie choices now that I know what they are. Maybe the patrons at TacoTime just don't care, but for me its worth it.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Lorraine

    People will begin to care when they get tons of health problems from over using fast food chains. It okay from time to time but some people go like every day 2or3 times. Yes calories should be added to the menu for those of us who care just like it was not listed for people who don't care.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. I LOVE TACO BELL

    I am one of those people who don't care. I really don't. I am so addicted to the stuff it doesn't matter how bad it is. My hubby and I know it is horrible, we eat it anyway. I guess at a certain point I just decided that food was becoming too much of an obsession for us – good, bad, causes cancer, vegan, organic, etc. It just gets old trying to keep up with it all.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • wow

      maybe you should try to get addicted to something healthy, like exercise. Oh wait, you can't get it from a drive through window.

      I do enjoy watching fat people eat though...

      January 18, 2011 at 15:35 | Report abuse |
  43. Matt M

    Actually this information is pretty useful to people like me (people who have some degree of concern for their health)

    January 18, 2011 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Manny

    The fact is that Americans are fat!!! I should know – I live in Texas. I think the point behind the measure is to allow people to make an educated decision. Those interested in calorie count now have the option of knowing that the "healthy" option they think they are making is actually packed in calories and fat content. As for businesses being hit hard by this – give me a break! Changing the menu to add calorie count is minimal and local restaurants should know what goes into their food. This is not the government overreaching – this the government actually doing their job. If you want a hands off government, then look back 10 years and see what no regulation did to the housing market. The last comment is for both Democrats and Republicans as both did little during the crisis and both are run by lobbyists.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Mike

    Americans are so freaking fat it is embarrassing. That Wally disney cartoon wasn't too far off the mark. Soon the vast majority of Americans will be grossly overweight, confined to wheelchair like machines, and be unable or unwilling to get up. That movie Idiocracy is also starting to come true. Lazy, dumb, fat people are the ones having several children (fat white conservatives and poor minorities), while intelligent, fit, hard working people (liberals) get married later in life and maybe have 1 child at most.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. it's called self control

    everything is ok in moderation. the problem is lots of people just don't give a crap how they look or feel... fat people disgust me. They are drug addicts and food is their drug.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andagain

      Maybe your thyroid will go out of control and you will get fat and people can be disgusted with you, too.

      January 18, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse |
  47. Robert

    I suspect that those people who watch their caloric intake seldom eat at places like Taco Bell or Burger King.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. greenbird321

    for those complaining that there are no calories posted at restaurants in their area, I have this to say: if you're trying to eat healthy, all you really need to do is use some common sense and ask some questions. find out what kind of oil things are cooked in. omit cheese and most sauces. cut back on carbs(i.e–no croutons on your salad) and don't eat fried foods. it's not that hard.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • good idea

      Have you ever asked a guy working at TacoTime what oil they use? "Ummm... 10W30, I think?"

      January 18, 2011 at 15:36 | Report abuse |
    • greenbird321

      if you're eating drive-through fast food, the oil is the least of your worries. you should be ordering a grilled chicken salad, sans cheese, croutons, crispies, etc.

      January 18, 2011 at 16:08 | Report abuse |
  49. 0hBrother

    What this study and all others like it fail to include is what would the customer have done if there were two options a low calorie taco or a fat filled taco. Of course reporting the calories inside isn't going to change the consumer's choice since they are already there. Pretty much too late then. Silly study!

    January 18, 2011 at 15:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Worked for me!

    The calorie charts worked for me...

    It made me stop going to all fast food chains. The study is flawed because it doesn't take into account the people who don't go to the restaurants anymore because of the calories.

    January 18, 2011 at 15:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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