When confronted with the reality that your favorite blueberry scone, the one you buy for breakfast every day, comes packed with 400-plus calories, do you still go for the pastry? Yes, you probably will.
No matter how much calorie information is on the menu list, people still choose the food they like, not what's supposed to be healthier, researchers from Carnegie Mellon reported Thursday.
Despite the good intentions of regulations requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts of each menu item, studies have shown such mandates do little to actually change people's behavior. But the Carnegie Mellon researchers wondered if people were given a little more information to help put those calorie counts in context, would they choose a lower-calorie item?
They found even including calorie information for each food item, plus the recommendations on how many calories are appropriate to consume during one meal, or over the course of a day, doesn't turn people off a Big Mac (500-plus calories).
"Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people's ordering behaviors at all," says Julie Downs, lead author of the new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
It's an important issue, as several states and municipalities across the country—New York City, Philadelphia, California, Oregon and King County in Washington state—have already introduced mandatory menu labeling. Soon, nationwide regulations will go into effect, thanks to the new health care law—and as part of that new health care reform legislation, restaurants will be required to post daily calorie recommendations directly onto menus.
It's a well-intentioned, but unrealistic, policy, Downs says. The new data show that providing that broader context doesn't help people make healthier choices, either.
"The people who set these policies aren't very representative" of the people they're setting them for, Downs says. "They think about what they eat. They think, 'I'm not going to eat a giant hamburger, fries and a milkshake for lunch.' "