July 26, 2011 – New Yorkers who bought lunch at several major fast food chains used posted menu calorie counts to make lower calorie choices, according to a study released today in the British Medical Journal. Researchers surveyed a sample of New Yorkers before and after the March 2008 regulation for fast food chains to post calories went into effect. In spring 2009, one year after the trend-setting New York City law became effective, one out of every six fast food customers surveyed said they used posted calorie information to make food buying decisions and these customers purchased 106 fewer calories than those who did not see or use the calorie information. The NYC law for calorie posting was adopted nationally through the health care reform bill in 2010 and will go into effect nation-wide within the next year. This is the most extensive study of the effect of menu labeling to date.
"New Yorkers who want to limit their calories are using posted calorie information to do so," said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. "By requiring fast food chains to post the amount of calories in food items, we’ve made it easier for New Yorkers to make more informed choices about the food they eat. This customer survey shows that people who are taking calorie counts into account when they order are purchasing fewer calories as a result. Posted calorie listings help consumers make healthier choices. Considering the extremely high rates of obesity, these types of systematic changes to the food environment are needed to make a difference in combating today’s obesity epidemic."
Calorie posting and other food improvement efforts are aimed at tackling obesity rates in New York City, which are at an all-time high in both adults and children. Currently nearly six in ten New York City adults are overweight or obese. The leading causes of death in New York City and across the nation are associated with obesity, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Consuming a healthy diet – one that is high in fruits and vegetables, low in fat and that meets daily calorie recommendations – is of the most important factors that can protect against these chronic diseases.
To assess whether the City’s innovative calorie labeling policy would result in any change in calories purchased, researchers surveyed more than 15,000 lunchtime customers and reviewed their register receipts from 168 locations of the top 11 fast food chains in New York City in 2007 and 2009, before and after the law went into effect.
One in six customers (15%) reported using the calorie information to make their purchase, and these customers purchased an average of 106 fewer calories. The researchers also determined that customers at three of the major fast food chains significantly reduced the calorie content of the food items they purchased in 2009 as compared with purchases in 2007. Lunchgoers at Au Bon Pain purchased 80 fewer calories. KFC customers purchased 59 fewer calories after calorie labeling went into effect and McDonald’s patrons purchased 44 fewer calories according to receipts. Together, these three chains represented 42% of all customers in the study."
One chain, Subway, showed a significant increase in calories purchased post regulation. However, the sandwich maker ran a $5 foot-long sub sandwich promotion during the survey period, resulting in a tripling of the percentage of customers who purchased the 12-inch sandwich. In 2007 (before regulation), one in four customers purchased a 12 inch sub; in 2009 (post regulation and during the $5 promotion) three in four customers purchased the 12-inch sandwich. Data did not show a statistically significant change in calories purchased overall at all food chains.
"As calorie labeling spreads nationwide and internationally, more consumers will be able to easily access calorie information and restaurant chains will have a greater incentive to reformulate their products and offer healthier options," said Dr. Lynn Silver, a co-author of the BMJ paper and director of the Office of Science and Policy in the Health Department’s Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. "More complete evaluation of the long-term effects of the policy will be possible over time, but these initial findings in New York City are encouraging. For customers who don’t examine calorie information, increasing the proportion of lower calorie offerings is important. While calorie labeling alone will not solve the obesity epidemic, it is an important tool to inform the public and provide an incentive for the restaurant industry to improve its offerings."
Today, across the nation almost 50% of the food dollar is spent outside the home. A link between fast food consumption and excessive calorie intake has been documented by several research studies. Studies show that customers often underestimate the number of calories in restaurant meals. Before 2008, nutrition information for fast food items was seldom available at the point of purchase, where consumers can use it to make buying decisions. The Health Department passed the 2008 regulations to post calorie information at the point of purchase in order to give New Yorkers an opportunity to make more informed food choices.
For more information about the Health Department’s calorie labeling initiatives, search calorie posting on NYC.gov.