When It Comes to Fast Food, Labeling Can Lower Calorie Counts

Those calorie counts on fast food menus that make you feel bad about your extra-large fries actually work. Unless, of course, you found the advertisements really convincing.

Big Gulp

As communities implement sometimes-contentious food labeling requirements in fast food establishments, research shows that such initiatives have a small but significant impact on calorie counts, nudging consumers to choose smaller portions and healthier options. That is, of course, until advertisers get in the way.

Checking on calories counts at major chains in New York before and after the city implemented new labeling regulations in 2008, a study in the British Medical Journal found average calorie counts per meal dropping by about 5 percent at McDonald's and more than 6 percent at KFC; Au Bon Pain achieved a whopping 14.4 percent drop in calories per purchase. The results suggest that when consumers are given the chance to inform their choices, they'll go for healthier options.

The paper also confirms what seemed obvious already: that while people looking at the calories might choose the healthier option, that can be easily overcome with a clever jingle. It's quite easy to upsell consumers into higher calorie counts. Subway, whose "Five-Dollar Foot Long" campaign's maddening jingle seemed ubiquitous during the period of the study, saw calorie counts shoot up by 17.8 percent per meal.

It's easy to desire even more labeling than the laws in New York and other cities currently mandate. If 7-Eleven gave up the "Double Gulp" branding in favor of a stark "TWO LITERS/744 CALORIES" label emblazoned on its bucket-sized soda portion, for instance, customers might look to saner sizes.

But as the study shows, labeling doesn't have to shame diners to make a difference. Indeed, the modest but measurable successes at several chains indicate that in a time when information wants to be free, consumers will make use of data to make informed choices about dining. As McDonald's and the other franchises respond incrementally to pressure to make their offerings healthier, it's powerful evidence that consumers are hungry not only for fat, salt, and sugar, but knowledge.

[Image: Flickr user Aameerule]

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