Fast-food customers cut calories after introduction of NYC’s calorie labelling laws

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 29th July 2011

British Medical Journal website reports a new study has found one in six fast food customers in New York City have used calorie information and, on average, bought food with lower calories since the 2008 introduction of a new labelling system.

Labelling requirements for chain restaurants

In response to the growing problem of obesity, New York had implemented a law in 2008 to apply to all chain restaurants with 15 or more branches nationally. The law stipulated that such chain restaurants must provide calorie information on menus and menu boards in New York.

The study

The Study of the New York City fast-food lunchtime outlets was about the impact of calorie labelling on the energy content of individual purchases. The study was conducted to compare the average calorie content per purchase at fast food restaurants in New York City before and after the introduction of the labelling regulations.

Researchers gathered surveys from 7,309 customers one year before the labelling laws were introduced. These results were then compared to survey responses obtained from 8,489 customers after the regulations had been in operation for 9 months.

When analysing the data overall, results were disappointing, with no decline in the average calorie content per purchase. However, consideration of the data according to each restaurant revealed significant reductions in several of the major chains.

  • McDonalds – decrease in average calorie intake by 5.3%
  • Au Bon Pain – decrease in average calorie intake by 14.4%
  • KFC – decrease in average energy calorie by 6.4%

Significantly, these three restaurant chains formed 42% of all customers in the study. A reason for the overall lack of difference before and after the law change may be due to the influence of results obtained from Subway customers who were shown to have increased their average calorie intake by 17.8%. Subway appears to have encouraged larger portion sizes at the time of the Study survey.

The Study concluded that, since the introduction of the regulations, one in six customers were relying on the calorie information provided on the labels when making their purchase. Further, these customers were making lower calorie choices.

What next?

In England, the Public Health Responsibility Deal will see a similar scheme put in place, with High Street chains voluntarily stipulating calorie content on labels.

The full article on the British Medical Journal website report of the New York City Study can be viewed at British Medical Journal.

The current Australian position

In Australia, various moves are being made to encourage disclosure of energy values of food sold in chain restaurants.

FoodLegal managing principal lawyer, Joe Lederman, points out that a number of State governments in Australia have announced an intention for disclosure of nutritional information at the point of sale in fast food chain restaurants. Furthermore, in December 2010, the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council announced its intention to develop recommendations on a national approach for the disclosure of the nutritional content of foods purchased from fast food outlets.

Lederman points out that the Blewett Review of Food Labelling, released in late January 2011, also recommended that chain food service outlets across Australia be encouraged to display a multiple traffic lights system on menus and menu boards. However, Lederman said that “in light of the EU rejection of mandatory traffic lights on front of pack labelling, there is no certainty that all of the Blewett recommendations will be accepted.”