Researchers suggest simple graphic information on menus showing healthier choices may be more useful to consumers
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Detailed nutrition labeling on fast food menus had no measurable effect on consumer choices at a group of Taco Time restaurants in King County, Washington, according to a study by health researchers from Duke University and the National University of Singapore.
The county, which includes Seattle, enacted mandatory labeling in January 2009 on all restaurant chains with 15 or more locations. The law is aimed at trying curb obesity, seen as a serious public health issue across the country. Restaurants had to disclose calorie information at the point of purchase.
The study showed that purchasing decisions at stores with the nutritional information was identical to stores where the menu boards were unchanged. The total number of sales and average calories per transaction were unaffected by the menu labeling.
“Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small, but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation,” said lead author Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D., associate professor of health services at Duke-NUS. “The results suggest that mandatory menu labeling, unless combined with other interventions, may be unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic.”
As part of health care reform, the federal government has plans for a nationwide launch of mandatory nutrition information at the point of purchase for fast-food chains with 20 or more outlets.
“However, it may be that detailed nutritional information is not the best way to convey the health content of fast foods,” said coauthor Kiersten Strombotne of Duke-NUS. “For example, if you know a store offers diet and regular soda, does showing how many calories are in regular soda really offer any relevant information? Those who want a lower calorie drink already know to drink the diet soda.”
Finkelstein said that the lack of effects at Taco Time may be because the restaurant was already identifying the healthier options via “Healthy Highlights” logos on the menu board before the legislation went into effect.
“A simple logo identifying which foods are healthiest may be all it takes to convey that information to those consumers who wish to choose a healthier alternative,” Finkelstein said. “The additional information appears not to have made a difference.”
Finkelstein pointed out that the obesity epidemic continued to increase after the Nutrition Facts Panel was required nationally for pre-packaged foods. He suggested that further studies should be done to quantify which sources of information are most likely to encourage consumers to switch to healthier options.
Such information, however, would be too late for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use because its regulations on fast-food menu labeling are due out by March 23, 2011, he said.