Several cities and states have introduced laws requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. The thinking behind it: if you tell people how much they are eating, they might moderate their intake and ultimately become healthier.
But the research doesn’t really back this theory up. Study after study (after study) has shown that calorie counts have little or no bearing on food choices (even if Americans say they want the information at their disposal). And a new piece of research shows not only the futility of calorie counts, but also of "recommended calorie intake information"—information that tries to put the calorie numbers in context.
Researchers sampled 1,121 adults at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York City (one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn) before and after the introduction of the city’s calorie count law. At lunchtime, they handed participants located outside the restaurants one of three pieces of paper: one with recommended daily calories (2,000 for women, 2,400 for men); a second with a per-meal recommendation (650 calories for women, 800 for men); and a third with no recommendation. The researchers asked the volunteers, who were paid $5, to keep their receipts so they could check them out afterwards.
The calorie information made no impact on buying choices. "Providing calorie recommendation benchmarks—such as calories per day or calories per meal—did not reduce calories purchased, nor did it appear to help participants to better use the calorie information posted on menus," the study, which is published in American Journal of Public Health, says. "In fact, we found some evidence that recommendations may even have promoted purchase of higher-calorie items."
Lead researcher Julie Downs, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, says it’s possible people simply knew what they wanted before they went in, so information is unlikely to sway them. More fundamentally, she says putting the onus on people to make decisions all the time may be expecting too much. "Most meals consist of multiple items—a drink, some food, maybe a side dish. That’s an awful lot of calculations to be doing for your whole life. It may just not be realistic to expect people to do that, especially considering all the other things that they need to worry about in their lives."
Calorie counts aren’t completely useless. Research has shown that calorie information laws can push restaurants to lower portion sizes and substitute in healthier ingredients. As a rule, transparency is a good thing.
But the research suggests that other policies—like outright bans on certain items (i.e. super-sized drinks) or incentivizing restaurants and manufacturers to offer healthier items—might be more effective.