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Menu labels having no effect? Evidence from Taco Time

Being a pioneer in adding calorie and nutrition labels to menus at fast-food restaurants has made King County a good place for researchers to visit.

A team based at Duke-National University of Singapore has been watching consumers at Taco Time restaurants, both in King County and in other counties, and found that adding all that info to the menus appeared to have no impact on people's choices. They published their results today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

As Shari Roan writes in the Los Angeles Times:

Thirteen months after the law went into effect, food purchases at the Taco Time restaurants in King County were identical to those at Taco Time restaurants where menu boards did not list nutritional information. "Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small, but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation," the lead author of the study, Eric Finkelstein, of Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, said in a news release. "The results suggest that mandatory menu labeling, unless combined with other interventions, may be unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic."

 This will not be the last word on menu labeling.

  1. The labels are coming soon to restaurants across the nation, because they were included in last year's federal health care law, the Affordable Care Act. 
  2. Other researchers have found conflicting results from studying menu labels in New York City and Seattle. 

 Confounding the research was the fact that Taco Time had recently started putting a "healthy choice" label next to some menu items, and consumers may have simply followed those logos.  Plus, as Alice Park at Time's Healthland blog notes:

"of course, there's the possibility that people who chose to eat at fast food restaurants aren't likely to be swayed by nutritional labeling. By walking into such establishments, they have already made a decision to put healthy choices aside."

Over at Public Health Seattle & King County, spokesman James Apa tells me:

"We don’t subscribe to the conclusion that menu labeling doesn’t work. We are doing separate, ongoing research. We have survey data, and we found awareness and use at chain restaurants has increased, over the first 18 months. A lot more people are saying, 'Yes we are seeing it and using it.' "And the second piece is, we are doing before implementation and during implementation studies, using people's receipts. For this we're focusing on burger chains. Are people eating fewer calories? The information there is preliminary. Among people who say they saw and used the calories information, there was a decrease in calories purchased."

Curiously, Apa says customers at one of the burger chains were eating fewer calories, but not at the others.  The researchers stood outside the restaurants and asked people for their receipts, then analyzed them for calories.

"For us, the bottom line is we can’t say what the full effect will be yet. This is all about addressing obesity, and we said from beginning, we are not expecting menu labeling itself to solve the obesity problem.  We want to know what kind of effect it can have," says Apa.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.