NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Menu labels on cafeteria food -- highlighting the good and the bad of various meal options -- make no difference in college students' meal choices, a new study concludes.
The results add to evidence that, despite laws in some cities mandating calorie counts on fast-food menus, nutritional information makes little difference to people when they are eating out.
"Although it is important to inform consumers about the nutritional characteristics of the food offered, providing nutrition information in less healthy food environments such as fast-food restaurants is unlikely to alter consumers' food choices," wrote Christine Hoefkens and Dr. Wim Verbeke, two authors of the study, in an email to Reuters Health.
Hoefkens, Verbeke and their colleagues, based at Ghent University in Belgium, asked 224 people who regularly ate at two of the university's cafeterias to log their diets for several days.
Then, the researchers put up posters in the cafeterias that rated meals on how healthy they were: zero stars for the least healthy to three stars for the most healthy. Study participants and other diners didn't know that the posters were part of a study.
Labels next to menu items also highlighted whether a meal was high in salt, calories, saturated fat or vegetables.
Six months later, the participants, who were mostly female undergraduates, again logged what they ate for a few days.
Though the researchers predicted that the diners would have responded to the posters and made healthier food choices, they found no difference in the number of meals eaten from each star category.
Dr. Lisa Harnack, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who was not involved in this study, said she was not surprised by the results.
"In studies, when you ask people how important nutrition is to them when they're ordering food from a restaurant menu, it's far less important than a food price or taste. It's just not a consideration," Harnack told Reuters Health.
What's concerning about the college student population, Hoefkens and Verbeke said, is that cafeteria meals are often the main source of food for students.
Cities such as New York and Philadelphia require fast-food chain restaurants to include calorie information on menus.
The health care reform law that passed in 2010 will also require that fast-food restaurants and vending machines include nutritional information.
Dr. Gail Kaye, the nutrition program director at Ohio State University, told Reuters Health that menu labels might still work to encourage healthier eating -- it's just that they need to be paired with a healthier-leaning menu.
In the Ghent study, for instance, 70 percent of the meals earned zero or one stars, both before and after the labels. The students' meal choices mirrored the proportion of offerings in each star category.
"If they had more healthy options there, they might have chosen them," said Kaye.
SOURCE: bit.ly/j1MMkF The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online June 15, 2011.