Earlier this month, a New York University study found that menu labeling did not necessarily impact consumers' ordering in poor neighborhoods in New York City. Now, a new study that has examined a broader cross section of the city has found that such information has resulted in consumers purchasing items with fewer calories.
Researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) conducted the study to examine the impact of city-wide menu labeling laws that went into effect in March 2008. They surveyed more than 10,000 customers at 275 locations across 13 different quick-serve, fast casual and coffee chains throughout the city in the spring of 2007. More 12,000 people were surveyed in 2009, nearly a year after the requirements began.
The average number of calories purchased per customer decreased at nine of the 13 chains, and four of the decreases were statistically significant, according to preliminary data presented at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society in Washington, D.C.
McDonald's, KFC, Au Bon Pain, and Starbucks saw statistically significant decreases in calories purchased, while only one — Subway — statistically increased significantly. In addition, customers at New York City chains, who said they saw and acted on posted calorie information, purchased food with 106 fewer calories than those who did not notice or did not use the information.
The researchers findings include:
- 56 percent of customers in New York City reported seeing the calorie information in the spring of 2009, an increase from just under 8 percent in 2007, when just Subway restaurants posted such information for a few menu items.
- The number of calories purchased at Subway increased significantly, which was attributed to the increase in the percentage of customers purchasing 12-inch sandwiches, from 28 percent to 73 percent during the study period. This rise occurred when Subway was conducting its "$5 Foot-long" advertising campaign, suggesting that effects of calorie labeling may be overcome by intensive marketing of large portion sizes.
"These results are exciting new findings suggesting that more consumers are seeing and using calorie information and that calories have declined in some of the city's largest chains," said Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control in the DOHMH. "Dietary change is likely to come gradually; it will start with consumers interested in making informed, healthy eating decisions, and we hope industry will respond by offering more healthier choices and appropriate portion sizes."
Both the NYU study and the DOHMH study were funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A comprehensive analysis on menu labeling is available at the program's Web site.