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ARTICLE CONTRIBUTORS

British Medical Journal

News & Views

FAST FOOD LABELLING CUTS CALORIES

Around a sixth of fast food customers used calorie information and, on average, bought food with lower calories since the introduction of a labelling system in the US, says a new study1 published recently on bmj.com.

US researchers found there has been a small but positive impact from a law introduced in 2008 in New York requiring chain restaurants with 15 or more branches nationally to provide calorie information on menus and menu boards in the city.  

Obesity rates in the US are at an all time high in both adults and children and currently a third of adults and 17% of children and teenagers are obese.

A team of researchers decided to assess the impact of calorie labelling regulation on the energy content of individual purchases at fast food restaurants in New York City. Several studies support an association between fast food consumption and excessive energy intake, but customers often underestimate the number of calories in restaurant meals, they claim.

Surveys were carried out during lunchtime hours in spring 2007 (one year before the regulation) and in spring 2009 (nine months after its implementation) at 168 randomly selected locations of the top 11 fast food chains in the city.

  Adult customers provided register receipts and answered survey questions.

Data from 7,309 customers in 2007 and 8,489 customers in 2009 were analysed.  Overall, there was no decline in calories purchased across the full sample. However, three major chains saw significant reductions.  

For example, at McDonalds, average energy per purchase fell by 5.3%, at Au Bon Pain, it fell by 14.4% and at KFC, it dropped by 6.4%.

Together, these three chains represented 42% of all customers in the study.  However, average energy content increased at one chain – Subway – by 17.8% where large portions were heavily promoted.

  Analysis also showed that 15% of customers reported using the calorie information and, on average, these customers purchased 106 fewer kilocalories than customers who did not see or use the calorie information.

The researchers say that calorie labelling is only one part of a framework to address the obesity epidemic and call for additional strategies to reduce energy intake on a population basis. “Special attention should be focused on educating customers on how to interpret and use nutrition information,” they conclude.

In an accompanying editorial,2 Dr Susan Jebb from the MRC Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge asserts that labelling is a step forward, but changes in food supply must follow. She writes: “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”.

References

1 Dumanovsky T, Huang CY, Nonas CA,  Matte TD,  Bassett MT,  Silver LD. Changes in energy content of lunchtime purchases from fast food restaurants after introduction of calorie labelling: cross sectional customer surveys. BMJ 2011;343:d4464 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4464

2 Jebb SA. Calorie labelling on the high street. BMJ 2011;343:d4502 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4502

Published on: September 7, 2011

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