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Calorie Labels Don't Influence Many Fast Food Customers, Study Finds

Monday, February 14, 2011

Calorie labels at New York City's fast food restaurants don't have much influence on the kind of food teenagers end up ordering, according to a new study from NYU's School of Medicine.

Dr. Brian Elbel, the professor who led the study, said just more than half of the teens surveyed in New York City noticed the labels, with nine percent saying the information influenced their choices.

"What we didn't see though was any change in the number of calories purchased for these adolescents, so there was no change before and after calorie labeling," he said.

Elbel said the same was true for parents buying food for their kids, even though more of them claimed that the labels influenced their decisions.

"I think we do know enough now to get a sense that labeling is not going to be a silver bullet that's gonna impact obesity in a large-scale way by itself," he said. "I think it means we're gonna need to look at other public policy approaches."

But city health officials say they are using other approaches, like tax and zoning incentives, to get more grocery stores into poor neighborhoods. The health department's Cathy Nonas said the calorie information was never meant to stand alone, just to help people make better decisions.

Nonas also takes issue with NYU's methodology. "I'm sorry that it's such a small study, because it really doesn't give us much information," she said.

The NYU study gathered receipts and surveys from more than 400 parents and teenagers before and after labeling began in 2008.

Researchers focused on lower-income areas of New York City and used Newark, New Jersey, for comparison since the city did not have mandatory labeling. Elbel said eating patterns were similar on both sides of the Hudson.

Cathy Nonas said the city's study gathered 20,000 receipts before and after labeling. Fifteen percent of the adults surveyed said the calorie counts had an impact on what they bought.

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