Fast Food Labeling May Not Work At All, Finds Study

The 2010 Affordable Care Act also required that all chains of 20 or more restaurants—that'd mean almost all fast food chains—post nutritional information on their menus.

After the usual delays, the final date for compliance nationwide is currently December 1st of 2016, rapidly approaching—though of course most chains have already made those changes.

Customers at fast food restaurants are by now familiar with the calorie counts, fat content, and other figures of their favorite foods. At least theoretically. In reality, it might not be so easy to inform and change the eating habits of Americans.

A new study from NYU surveyed 699 fast food chain customers—some at the moment of sale, some by phone—to find out exactly how helpful these newly public nutritional data really are.

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The NYU study, strangely, did not come right out and ask the respondents whether the posted nutritional info actually changed their purchasing habits. Instead, it put together five criteria that theoretically would indicate whether the nutritional info is working, those being: the consumer sees the info, the consumer wants to eat healthfully, the consumer knows how many calories to consume each day, the labeling offers information the consumer wasn’t previously aware of, and the consumer is a regular purchaser of fast food.

In fast food restaurants, only 8 percent of respondents actually met all five criteria. Amazingly, a whopping two-thirds of respondents (again, those in the restaurant, instead of those reached by phone) said they didn’t even see the posted information. This together, concludes the study, indicates that the posting of nutritional info is not likely to have a particularly strong effect on consumer behavior.

As a solution, the study suggests making the nutritional info much more obvious and eye-catching, which is in direct contrast to a bill making its way through Congress right now. That bill wants to, theoretically, ease the difficulty of displaying nutritional info, which could be tricky due to highly customizable offerings (like pizza toppings) or misleading figures (like displaying the info for an entire pizza rather than a slice). But what it also might do is make it easier for restaurants to hide their figures by, for example, posting them online rather than in menus and in restaurants.

That could have the exact opposite effect that the NYU study found was needed: just making consumers aware that the nutritional info even exists.

Fast Food Labeling May Not Work At All, Finds Study