Monday, November 23, 2009

Not Quite Time for Change

You may or may not have read about the recent study from New York University that showed that menu labeling laws in New York City are not having an effect on the total number of calories ordered in fast food restaurants. The law in NYC has been in effect for over a year now, so it’s fair to assume that most New Yorkers are pretty use to seeing these numbers. But the results of this study show that the numbers aren’t quite having the effects they were hoping for, at least not yet.

Although the study did show that more people were noticing the numbers, and were in fact influencing buying decisions, the overall number of calories ordered did not drop when compared to when the same study was done before the law went into effect; in fact it was slightly higher.

Why is this? How could these numbers be having the opposite affect than they were intended to?

Some, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg say that the study was done too soon. Others, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation say that because eating behaviors are known for being difficult to change (as evidenced by America’s obesity epidemic) calorie posting isn’t enough, and that more needs to be done to help people use these facts.

I have to agree with both of the above arguments, and I’ll also take this opportunity to throw in my own two cents:

People want good food, people also want to be thin and healthy, but from what we’ve seen lately people want good-tasting food more. The article Healthy Menus: Just Don't Call Them Healthy, from Chain Leader author Monica Rogers discusses how some restaurants have been reformulating some of their recipes to be healthier and not telling their diners about it. Why? They’re afraid their diners will think that the taste quality has dropped, even though by some accounts the healthier items were said to be tastier.

Cent two: this study was done in low income areas of NYC. These are communities tend to have higher obesity rates; higher obesity rates due to higher consumption of fast food; higher consumption of fast food due to low income. To make things simple I’ll just agree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This is going to take more time to fix and it’s going to take more effort.

So what’s next? Do we wait and see what more time will do with menu labeling laws? Or is there something else?


  1. I think unless the study shows/allows a choice between two identical menu items but in two different portion sizes, it's not possible to prove anything. And until restaurants offer smaller portions of the things people like, customers will continue to order what they like in sizes that are highly caloric.

    But now that customers have the calorie information (always useful, regardless of how it affects ordering), it's possible they will eat less of a menu item (or share it, or take half home)... none of this is explored in the study, so we don't really know how much of a menu item is actually being consumed, only what is ordered.

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