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Menu labels spur diners to trim calories
December 31, 2009 / 4:49 PM / 8 years ago

Menu labels spur diners to trim calories

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Restaurant menus that include calorie information do seem to encourage diners to exercise some restraint, a new study suggests.

<p>People line up to buy food at a fast food restaurant in Harlem in New York December 16, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly</p>

What’s more, researchers found, menus that give added information -- namely, the number of calories the average adult should get in a day -- could prove even more effective at curbing appetites.

The findings, reported in the American Journal of Public Health, give some weight to the growing movement to require restaurant chains to place calorie information on their menus and menu boards.

In 2008, New York City became the first U.S. city to mandate such changes at fast-food and coffee chains. That law became a model for California and other U.S. states and cities that have since implemented or are considering similar measures.

And soon the federal government may be stepping in; provisions for menu labeling are part of the healthcare reform legislation currently before Congress.

The intention is to help combat the nation’s obesity problem by raising consumer awareness of just how many calories lurk in their burgers, sandwiches, fries and desserts.

But questions have been raised about the effectiveness of menu labeling.

In October, an independent study of New York’s law concluded that menu labeling had done nothing to change consumer habits in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Shortly thereafter, the city’s health department released preliminary data from a larger study suggesting that New Yorkers had, in fact, started buying fewer calories at 9 of 13 fast- food and coffee chains included in the research.

For the current study, Yale University researchers tested the effects of menus that provide not only calorie content, but also a line stating that the average adult should get about 2,000 calories a day.

The researchers randomly assigned 303 adults to order from one of three menus: one with no calorie labeling; one with calorie information; and one with calorie content, plus a label with the 2,000- calorie recommendation.

Overall, the study found, diners in the two calorie-label groups ate 14 percent fewer calories at the meal than those who had ordered from the label-free menus.

And when study participants later reported on their food intake for the remainder of the day, the researchers found that those who had seen the 2,000-calorie recommendation downed fewer calories -- an average of 250 fewer than those in the other two groups.

The setting was experimental, and not “real world,” but that allowed the researchers to show cause-and-effect, noted Christina Roberto, a doctoral candidate at Yale who led the study. “We can say that is the menu labeling having the effects” on calorie intake, she told Reuters Health.

Moreover, Roberto said, the findings highlight the potential impact of a simple line stating the number of calories a person should get each day. “That turned out to be really important,” said Roberto, noting that the information helps people put their single meal in the context of a whole day.

“By putting that ‘anchor’ in,” she said, “you can maximize the effectiveness of menu labeling.”

Roberto noted that the current healthcare reform bills would have restaurants include the daily-calorie recommendation on menus.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online December 17, 2009.

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