NEW YORK – Ever wonder how often people take time to find out how many calories are in their large order of fries?
Out of 4311 people buying food at McDonalds, Burger King, Au Bon Pain, or Starbucks, Christina A. Roberto and her colleagues from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut found that just six looked at the nutrition information the restaurants provided, or one-tenth of one percent.
The findings show "you've got to have this information in a really highly visible place, like on a menu board," Roberto told Reuters Health. "The way it's offered now is just not an effective way to disseminate that kind of information to the public."
Many cities and states are pondering legislation that would require chain restaurants to prominently post the calorie content of food choices; in Manhattan, establishments with 15 or more locations now must label menu items with their calorie content, and California has passed a similar law.
The restaurant industry has opposed this legislation, arguing that this information is already available to customers who want it, for example on companies' Web sites. But only half of the biggest chains make this information available in their restaurants, Roberto and her team note in their report in the American Journal of Public Health.
To investigate how often people do access this information when restaurants provide it, Roberto and her team watched patrons at two different locations of each restaurant chain in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New Haven, and the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. Customers were considered to have looked at the nutrition information if they walked up to a poster with the information and turned their head toward it, picked up a pamphlet, or touched the screen of the computer that Au Bon Pain restaurants use to provide nutrition information.
In McDonalds, where both stores provided posters with nutrition information and one offered pamphlets, just two people were seen checking out this information before buying something, and two looked at the information after buying food. Three Burger King patrons looked at the nutrition poster, and one Au Bon Pain customer looked at the computer. None of the Starbucks customers picked up a nutrition pamphlet.
Americans eat many meals in restaurants, Roberto and her colleagues note, and studies have shown that people are often not aware of how many calories they eat in these restaurants, which typically offer food in large portions.
Menu labels could help people think twice when ordering, Roberto said, and steer them toward healthier choices. "First and foremost," she added, "it gives consumers information that they really have the right to know."