Do the calorie counts on the menu board at McDonald's give you pause when ordering a Big Mac and fries? A pair of new studies indicate that calorie counts on menus don't actually have much of an effect on what people order — but they may be influencing the restaurants to offer lower-calorie foods, at least.
The first study, conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in the November issue of Health Affairs, reveals that "Large U.S.-based chain restaurants that voluntarily list calorie counts on their menus average nearly 140 fewer calories per item than those that do not post the information," explains a press release. For the study, researchers analyzed menu data from 66 of the top U.S. restaurant chains. They found that in 2014, the average calorie count at restaurants with voluntary calorie count labeling was 263; at those that did not display such information, the average calorie count of a menu item was 402.
The requirement has had an unintended, but positive effect
That doesn't necessarily mean that restaurants that display calorie counts are purposely making their food healthier, though. Says Newswise: "It isn’t clear, however, from this study whether the chains with calorie counts on their menus were already serving lower-calorie foods before they decided to go public with their calorie counts (which could have incentivized them to voluntarily share the information), whether calorie counts were lowered in anticipation of the move, or whether these chains just happened to have lower calorie counts all along."
U.S. restaurants with more than 20 outlets will be legally required to display calorie counts as of December 2016, a provision of the Affordable Care Act that Obama signed into law back in 2010 that hopes to encourage Americans to make healthier food choices. Many chains, like McDonald's, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A, have been voluntarily doing so nationwide since as far back as 2012. And casual dining chains, such as The Cheesecake Factory — known for its ridiculously oversized portions — have already been made to display calorie data for all its customers to see in certain cities and states where it’s legally required, such as California (where said chain has three dozen outlets).
But do people even care that their plate of shrimp pasta has more than 3,000 calories, AKA more than any normal adult should eat in an entire day? Perhaps not: Another new study from NYU's Langore Medical Center indicates that the posting of calorie counts isn't changing the way consumers order. Researchers looked at more than 7,000 fast food customers in New York City — where chain restaurants have been required to post calorie counts on menus since 2008 — and "found that calorie labels, on their own, have not reduced the overall number of calories that consumers of fast food order and presumably eat." It echoes the findings of a similar study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University back in 2013.
The study results led the researchers to conclude that displaying calorie counts "remains an unproven strategy for improving the nutritional quality of consumer food choices." They urge that "additional policy efforts that go beyond labeling and possibly alter labeling to increase its impact must be considered" — but what, exactly, should be done?
A previous study from Johns Hopkins suggested that rather than simply displaying calorie counts, restaurants could offer data on how many miles it would take a person to burn off the calories in a particular menu item. Perhaps the knowledge that they'd have to run a marathon to burn off that extra-large Dairy Queen Blizzard would encourage diners to make smarter choices.