A study found that the 2008 New York City law requiring fast-food companies to post nutrition information on menus led to one in six customers ordering foods with fewer calories. This is being spun as a success, but there's evidence that the numbers are just bumming people out as they order their 1,600 calorie burgers.
Health advocates are pushing for similar measures across the country, and the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal, is significant because it's the first to show that calorie information changes what customers buy. However, the numbers are a bit underwhelming. Reuters reports:
The New York city report surveyed the lunchtime crowd at 11 fast-food restaurant chains, looking at receipts for more than 7,300 people 12 months before the law took effect and for nearly 8,500 customers nine months after it was implemented.
For the three main restaurant chains studied, customers on average bought 44 fewer calories at McDonald's, 80 fewer calories at Au Bon Pain and 59 fewer calories at KFC.
For reference, dropping 44 calories from an order at McDonald's amounts to eating one less McNugget. Plus, the study proved that cheap food motivates people more than guidelines for sensible eating. While most chains experienced little change in customer buying habits, people actually purchased more calories at Subway, thanks to the inescapable "$5 foot long" promotion.
It actually seems that calorie counts aren't having a dramatic effect on what people order — though that doesn't mean they should be dropped. Publishing nutritional information hasn't led to a significant change in most people's eating habits, but they still have a right to know what they're consuming. (Even if learning that Au Bon Pain's Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich contains 24 grams of fat is heartbreaking.) Restaurants being forced to spell out the artery-busting qualities of their foods has led to some chains offering healthier options. Cosi has started using low-fat mayonnaise, Applebees has introduced more low-calorie meals, and McDonald's is providing fruits and vegetables for kids to push around their trays. Perhaps five out of six people are scanning calorie counts and thinking "screw it" because right now most fast food chains don't offer any alternatives for those trying to eat healthy.