Customers at several major fast food chains, including McDonald’s, were more inclined to buy lower-calorie meals after the introduction of a menu labelling system in the US, researchers have found.
Around one in six fast food consumers overall used calorie information and made healthier choices following a law introduced in New York in 2008, which made labelling of menus and menu boards compulsory for chain restaurants with more than 15 branches nationally.
A similar approach – albeit on a voluntary basis – is due to be introduced in England shortly. According to the Scottish government, some of the chains taking part also operate in Scotland and the government will be monitoring the effects.
Several studies have backed the idea that eating fast food is associated with taking in too many calories, but customers often underestimate the energy content of food they order from restaurants. A team of researchers decided to assess the impact of the calorie labelling regulation on the calorie content of purchases at fast food outlets in New York City.
They carried out surveys at lunchtimes in spring 2007, a year before the regulation was introduced, and in spring 2009, nine months after it came into force, at 168 randomly selected locations of the top 11 fast food chains in the city. Adults were asked to answer survey questions and provide till receipts – around 7,300 in 2007 and 8,500 in 2009.
Although there was no decline in calories purchased when the entire sample was considered, three major chains saw significant reductions – at McDonald’s, average energy per purchase fell by 5.3 per cent, at Au Bon Pain by 14.4 per cent and at KFC, by 6.4 per cent. These three chains represented 42 per cent of all the customers in the study.
Customers of Subway, however, increased the average energy content of their purchases by 17.8 per cent, at a time when large portions were being heavily promoted.
The survey showed that 15 per cent of customers reported using the calorie information and, on average, these customers bought 106 fewer calories than those who did not see or use the calorie information.
Writing in bmj.com, the researchers say that calorie labelling is only one part of a framework to address the obesity epidemic, and that additional strategies to reduce energy intake across the piece should be implemented. “Special attention should be focused on educating customers on how to interpret and use nutrition information,” they add.
The research does, however, suggest that regulation may have a part to play, although calorie labelling is only one element. Also writing in bmj.com, Dr Susan Jebb from the MRC Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge said that labelling is a step forward, but that more action is needed. “Calorie labelling will help consumers make an informed choice about what they eat, but sustained improvements in the nation’s diet will require a transformation of the food supply too.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said the issue was being taken seriously in Scotland: “We recognise the benefits of providing such information to consumers so that they are more aware of the nutritional composition of their food and to them make informed dietary choices.
“Work on ‘out of home’ calorie labelling, initiated originally by the UK FSA [Food Standards Agency], has been continued by the UK Department of Health following the transfer of nutrition policy from the FSA in England and Wales last year. The UK Department of Health has recently published guidance on voluntary calorie labelling for caterers as part of the Responsibility Deal. A number of companies have now signed up to that deal, some of which operate in Scotland.
“The FSA in Scotland, along with their counterparts in Northern Ireland, plan to follow up those UK companies that are active in Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that they are pursuing out of home calorie labelling here. We will continue to work with Scottish government and the food industry here to ensure that consumers have the information and understanding they need to make informed choices about where and what they eat.”