As part of the UK government’s so-called “Public Health Responsibility Deal”, a number of fast food outlets are about to adopt a voluntary scheme to add calorie information to their menus. But how effective is this in helping the fight against obesity?
In 2008, a law was introduced in New York where fast food chains with 15 or more branches nationally had to provide calorie information on menus.
The results of a study into the effectiveness of the law suggest that it may have had a small but positive impact in reducing the number of calories New Yorkers consume.
Researchers questioned more than 7,000 customers in 2007 and another 8,489 in 2009 about their eating habits at 168 randomly selected locations of the top 11 fast food chains in New York City, to find if the new law had any effect on the number of calories consumed.
Overall there was no actual reduction in total calories consumed. However, this is partly explained by the Subway fast food chain, which heavily promoted larger portions, and saw calorie consumption increase by nearly 20 per cent.
In three major chains there were clear reductions in calories consumed, with McDonald’s customers cutting back 5.3 per cent, KFC’s 6.4 per cent and Au Bon Pain 14.4 per cent. Significantly, these three chains accounted for over 40 per cent of all participants in the study.
The analysis also showed that 15 per cent of customers reported using the calorie information and, on average, these customers purchased 106 fewer kilocalories than customers who did not see or use the calorie information.
Beatrice Brooke at the British Heart Foundation said: “One in six meals in the UK is eaten away from home so it’s essential we know what’s in the food we’re buying in restaurants and cafes.
“The New York research shows us just how valuable calorie labelling in fast food restaurants can be, helping people eat as many as 100 fewer calories.
“Menu calorie counts are a great first step towards providing easily accessible information in restaurants about a whole range of nutrients, including saturated fat, sugar and salt.
“Fast food retailers in the UK must take action to help diners make informed choices about the meals they buy.”
The study is published online in the British Medical Journal.