Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Fast-food menu labels don’t cut calories in King County

by October 7th, 2011

A new study by researchers from Public Health Seattle and King County, the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, just published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, finds that mandatory labeling of menus at major fast food franchise outlets in King County isn’t reducing actual caloric intake among children or significantly among adults. It’s at least the second such report on the regional public health impact – or lack of it – since a new King County law in January 2009 began requiring all restaurant chains with 15 or more locations to prominently display information for each regular menu selection on calories, saturated fat, carbohydrate and sodium content.

For the newly-issued study, “The Impact of Menu Labeling on Fast Food Purchases for Children and Parents,” researchers got 75 families in Seattle-King County to go to the same large chain fast food restaurants before and after the new regulations kicked in early 2009, and tracked purchases and calories for parents and children so they could compare and analyze the results. Meanwhile, also as part of the study, 58 families in non-regulated San Diego County in California did the same. The study states, “It was hypothesized that menu labeling would result in lower-calorie purchases in the regulated versus the unregulated county,” but it didn’t turn out that way.

According to the study:

  • Mean calories per visit bought for all children didn’t change significantly between the first-round and second-round visits in either location, dropping a tiny fraction from 823 to 822 in King County and dropping by a slightly larger fraction in San Diego County, from 984 to 949.
  • For parents in regulated King County and unregulated San Diego County, the drop in calories between first- and second-round visits was nearly identical, at just more than 100 calories, so the drop among King County parents can’t be ascribed to the introduction of the menu labeling regulations.
  • There was a marked increase in King County parents noticing nutrition information, which was much more prominent after the menu labeling was introduced. Researchers said this was a positive impact because it increased awareness but “that did not translate into a lower number of calories purchased.”
  • Data gathered from participants showed that when making purchases at fast-food restaurants, taste was by far the biggest factor. Factors with modest influence were nutrition, cost and convenience. Factors with less influence were promotions, a free toy being offered, and weight control.

This isn’t the first time studies have shown that nutrition information labeling of menus has little effect on food choices. As Public Data Ferret reported earlier this year, in January:

…a newly-published study by Duke National University Of Singapore Graduate Medical School and King County public health researchers finds that based on field testing at Taco Time outlets in King County and in non-King County control locations, King County’s mandatory menu labeling requirements for large fast food chains so far does not demonstrate the intended effect of lowering the number of fast-food transactions and the average amount of calories per transaction. The latter was found to have actually risen slightly in the King County Taco Time locations from before any enforcement to the final stage of implementation with indoor and drive-through signage

The new study adds that the marginal results for parents dovetailed with an analysis researchers did of six other studies, five of which found that “calorie information weakly or inconsistently influenced food choices.”

However, while the evidence doesn’t yet show much positive effect from fast-food menu labeling in King County, researchers said further study is warranted because larger samples over longer periods of time could produce different results, and because the current study didn’t evaluate whether people made more health-conscious eating choices later in the day because of increased nutritional awareness prompted by the menu-labeling.

In addition, King County in 2010 announced to stakeholders that it intends to gradually phase in strengthened fast-food menu labeling regulations to conform with federal standards.

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2 Responses to “Fast-food menu labels don’t cut calories in King County”

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