It's a policy-making truism that posting calorie counts on fast food menus will help consumers make better eating choices — but a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health reveals that providing people with calorie guidelines has essentially no effect on how they order.
Carnegie Mellon researchers decided to test the theory that calorie counts encourage people to make better ordering choices, by analyzing the choices of 1,121 adult McDonalds customers at lunchtime, at two different New York City locations of the popular chain restaurant.
Before they ordered, researchers gave the lunch-goers were given three different categories of information: the recommended daily calorie intake for both men and women, the recommended per-meal calorie intake, and no additional information at all.
The results were disquieting: it turned out that the presence of additional information didn't help people to order less caloric meals, writes HealthDay. In fact, the people who recieved the additional information actually ordered higher-calorie meals.
“There have been high hopes that menu labeling could be a key tool to help combat high obesity levels in this country, and many people do appreciate having that information available.," said study lead author Julie Downs, associate research professor of social and decision sciences in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, on a press release on the university website.
"Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much, even when we give consumers what policymakers thought might help: some guidance for how many calories they should be eating."
The problem could be that policymakers are simply asking hungry lunch-goers to do too much math. Some people may feel that a 550-calorie Big Mac is acceptable, but they may neglect to consider the added effects of a large soda, french fries, and perhaps a dessert on top of that.
"In the end the bigger issue is that asking people to do math three times a day every day of their lives is a lot," said Downs added. "Because it's not like we make a decision about what to eat just once. It's a lot of decisions. And if you add a cognitive [mental] burden on top of that it's a lot to ask."