In some parts of the world your favourite fast food will list the Calories or kilojoules next to each menu item. You assess your hunger, check your three yummiest choices, then wisely ask for the one with the lowest number next to it. I mean, you don’t want to be buying bigger clothes any time soon.
You can now classify yourself as weird. Ok, extremely unusual. Not many people do that.
A New York study of lunch time selections determined whether menu choice was influenced by having the energy level next to it. They checked 168 venues of the top 11 best-selling fast-food chains about a year before and a year after the introduction of Calorie labeling began in mid-2008.
On the face of it, no big difference
Overall, there was no change in the number of Cals/kJs chosen from the menu. Before Calorie labeling, people chose 828 Cals (3465 kJs) for lunch, after 846 Cals (3540 kJs). Statistically, that is no difference. Not good news.
Looking at the results further, there were some differences worth noting.
First, we need to know that this study was done in adults who could speak English. No kids or under 18s. Although customers were chosen at random, they knew they would have to hand their receipt to a data collector (in exchange for a free public transport pass as reward). True, that shouldn’t influence their choice, but it may have.
Over half of the venues were McDonalds and Subway, with pizza chains the next biggest proportion of the venues surveyed. And this was New York. Might be different in Wellington, NZ, southern Wales, Port Moresby, or that little place outside of Victor Harbour, South Australia.
About 1 in 7 made lower energy choices
When deciding on lunch, 15% said that they used the Calorie information. As you can guess, women were more likely than men to choose lower Calorie options, and this decision was also more common in wealthier neighbourhoods than in the poorer areas.
Those that used the Calorie information had a lunch with 100 Cals (420 kJs) fewer, on average, compared to those that ignored the information. Not a lot, but it could be very significant over a year if they regularly bought their lunch at that venue.
McD down, Subway up
Reductions in energy consumption were more common in venues with a wider a range of choice. So, McDonalds customers ate 45 fewer Cals, KFC 60 Cals, and Dominos Pizza fans ate 280 fewer Cals. Note that the pizza eaters were still munching on 1000 Cal (4200 kJs) lunches after the reduction, still probably more than their body really needed.
At Subway, the energy content of each purchase actually jumped 17% from 750 Cals (3140 kJs) to 880 Cals (3685 kJs). What happened there? Well, the second survey was done during a cut-price promotion, a reminder that price has a lot more power than health when it comes to eating decisions.
What does it all mean?
You will recall the expression: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him wear a bikini.” Health authorities can deliver wise messages, make it easier for the customer, yet in a democracy the consumer wields the power and will make their own decisions, healthy or not. In this case, about 1 in 7 did make a smarter decision, but this can be over-ridden by meals being “on special”.