THESE STUDY FINDINGS DEMONSTRATE THAT HEALTHY FOOD MUST BE PRICED COMPETITIVELY WITH PROCESSED FOODS….BUT THE CALORIE COUNT LAWS ARE A VERY GOOD STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION AND MUST BE IMPROVED UPON…
The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.
It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.
But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
The findings, to be published Tuesday in the online version of the journal Health Affairs come amid the spreading popularity of calorie-counting proposals as a way to improve public health across the country.
“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.
New York City was the first place in the country to require calorie posting, making it a test case for other jurisdictions. Since then, California, Seattle and other places have instituted similar rules.
Calorie posting has even entered the national health care reform debate, with a proposal in the Senate to require calorie counts on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants.
This study focused primarily on poor black and Hispanic fast-food customers in the South Bronx, central Brooklyn, Harlem, Washington Heights and the Rockaways in Queens, and used a similar population in Newark, which does not have a calorie posting law, as a control group. The locations were chosen because of a high proportion of obesity and diabetes among poor minority populations.
The researchers collected about 1,100 receipts, two weeks before the calorie posting law took effect and four weeks after. Customers were paid $2 each to hand over their receipts.
For customers in New York City, orders had a mean of 846 calories after the labeling law took effect. Before the law took effect, it was 825 calories. In Newark, customers ordered about 825 calories before and after.
On Monday, customers at the McDonald’s on 125th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue provided anecdotal support for the findings.
William Mitchell, from Rosedale, Queens, who was in Harlem for a job interview, ordered two cheeseburgers, about 600 calories total, for $2.
When asked if he had checked the calories, he said: “It’s just cheap, so I buy it. I’m looking for the cheapest meal I can.”
Tameika Coates, 28, who works in the gift shop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ordered a Big Mac, 540 calories, with a large fries, 500 calories, and a large Sprite, 310 calories.
“I don’t really care too much,” Ms. Coates said. “I know I shouldn’t, ’cause I’m too big already,” she added with a laugh.
April Matos, a 24-year-old family specialist, bought her 3-year-old son, Amari, a Happy Meal with chicken McNuggets, along with a Snack Wrap for herself. She said with a shrug that she had no interest in counting calories. “Life is short,” she said, adding that she used to be a light eater. “I started eating everything now I’m pregnant.”
One advocate of calorie posting suggested that low-income people were more interested in price than calories.
“Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people, who are probably the least amenable to calorie labeling,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group in Washington.