Small Decrease in Calorie Purchases Following Implementation of Calorie Labeling in Chain Fast Food Restaurants
A new study finds that calorie labeling in a fast-food restaurant franchise resulted in small initial decreases in calorie purchases, but this was reduced over time. The study, “Estimating the effect of calorie menu labeling on calories purchased in a large restaurant franchise in the southern United States: quasi-experimental study”, led by researchers at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, appears in the October 30 issue of The BMJ.
Nutrition labeling aims to help consumers make healthier dietary choices in restaurants and other food stores. In May 2018, as passed in the Affordable Care Act, calorie labeling became a federal requirement in food establishment chains with 20 or more locations in the U.S. Despite the federal mandate, evidence for the effectiveness of calorie labeling has been limited. Although few previous studies have found associations between calorie labeling and calorie purchases, most have been too small to detect differences before and after labeling. This new study is one of the largest studies conducted on calorie labeling.
Researchers examined the effect of calorie labeling on calorie purchases using comprehensive sales data from a franchise of fast-food restaurants in the southern U.S. over a three-year period. The franchise labeled its menus with calorie information in 2017. The study team used data from 2015-2018, allowing researchers to examine two years of pre-labeling and one year of post-labeling sales data comprising nearly 50 million transactions. Results show that calorie labeling was associated with a decrease of 60 calories per transaction, a roughly 4% decrease after implementation, followed by a small weekly increase over the next year.
Our findings suggest that calorie labeling may be most effective as a short-term strategy for reducing calorie purchases, but that other nutrition interventions may be necessary for long-term positive dietary changes in these settings”, says Joshua Petimar, ScD, Research Fellow in the Department of Population Medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and Harvard Medical School and lead author of this study.
Adds Dr. Petimar, “We recommend future research to estimate the effects of calorie labeling over a longer period, particularly once restaurants have had time to reformulate their menus.”
The Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute's Department of Population Medicine is a unique collaboration between Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Harvard Medical School. Created in 1992, it is the first medical school department in the United States based in a health plan. The Institute focuses on improving health care delivery and population health through innovative research and teaching.