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Not-too-impressive results on the effect of menu labeling

October 12, 2010

Laws requiring fast-food restaurant chains to include nutritional information, especially calories, on menus or menu boards have garnered a lot of support. California was one of the first states to adopt the policy. And, under the healthcare reform bill, the provision will be required nationally.

But do these regulations really change what people purchase? A few studies on the affect of the law so far have been mixed. In what is probably the most disappointing data so far, researchers attending the Obesity Society annual meeting in San Diego said Tuesday that their study found menu labeling had little effect on normal-weight children but did lead to modest, reduced calorie consumption in overweight or obese children.

Researchers studied 75 parent-child pairs in King County -- the Seattle area -- before and after a menu labeling regulation took effect there and compared them to 58 parent-child pairs in San Diego before the California law went into effect. The average age of the children was 8. The labeling regulation did seem to trigger different behaviors when ordering meals. The ratio of parent and child pairs who said they choose the child's meal together increased from 12% before the regulation to 32% afterward. And the ratio of parents who say they saw the nutritional information in the restaurant doubled after the regulation took effect.

The parents said seeing the information influenced their food choices for their children and themselves. But the data showed average calorie consumption in fast-food restaurants did not decrease among children after the regulation took effect. The average calorie content for a child's meal before the law was 830 calories and 835 calories after the law took effect. Calories were lower in overweight children, however. Calorie totals for their meals dropped by an average of 85 after the regulation. Overweight parents consumed an average of 128 fewer calories after seeing menu labeling information.

"Most of the data on menu labeling has not been overwhelming that people are purchasing foods differently," said Dr. Pooja S. Tandon, a pediatric researcher at Seattle Children's Research Institute. But, she said, menu labeling laws were not expected to dramatically alter fast-food consumption. Instead, the laws are considered a consumer rights issue. People who want to use the information have it available while others can choose to ignore it. "It may be that the data will be helpful for people who are interested in changing their behavior," she said.

More studies are needed to understand what effect menu labeling laws have and how to make the regulations more effective in encouraging healthy eating, Tandon said. It could be that more time is needed for people to use the information and change their habits. Restaurant chains may also reconfigure their menus to reduce calories.

"It would be nice to see dramatic effects, but it's still early and we need to see what happens over time," she said.

-- Shari Roan / Los Angeles Times

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