Knowing how many calories are in our fast food cheeseburger may not influence whether we get it anyway, but it might impact how many calories were in the burger in the first place. New research published Monday on the effect of calorie counts on consumer and industry behavior shows the impact may not be where we expect it.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, chain restaurants in the U.S. with more than 20 locations—and other places like movie theaters—will have to list calories on their menus starting in December 2016. In the meantime, many restaurants have already started providing this data, and researchers have been studying what role this has on people’s food choices. Two new studies published Monday fall in line with prior work that suggests calorie labels may actually have a bigger impact on restaurants than the people who eat in them.
In one study, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center gathered 7,699 consumer survey responses and receipts from people eating at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s chains in New York City and some New Jersey cities. They compared food orders in places that had calorie labels to orders in places that didn’t.
The researchers found that the average calories bought by men and women between January 2013 and June 2014 was statistically unchanged from a previous survey of over 1,000 diners in 2008 when New York City had first required menu labeling. Overall, during the 2013-2014 period, people ate between 804 and 839 calories at restaurants with labels and between 802 and 857 calories per meal at places without labels. Before the cities began requiring labels, people ate about 783 calories per meal at labeled food spots and 756 per meal at places that didn’t label them.
In general, consumers said they saw the calorie information and that it impacted the number of calories they consumed, but this effect declined over five years. People were less likely to report seeing the labels in 2013-2014.
In the second study, also published Monday in Health Affairs, the researchers looked at data from 2012 to 2014 in MenuStat, which has the menu items of 66 of the largest U.S. chain restaurants. They found that chain restaurants that voluntarily list calories on their menus have an average of around 140 less calories per item compared to chains that do not list them.
They found that in 2012, the average item at restaurants with calorie counts had 26o calories compared to 399 in restaurants that did not. In 2014, the average number of calories for an item was 263 for places that listed calories and 402 in places that didn’t.
“If other chain restaurants follow this same trend once mandatory menu labeling goes into effect, it could significantly improve the restaurant environment for consumers,” said study author Julia A. Wolfson, a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a statement. “This could get consumers to eat healthier without having to change their behavior, something that is a very difficult thing to do and sustain.”
The study can’t confirm whether the restaurants with lower calorie counts already offered those foods before releasing data on their menus, but other research has shown that fast food fare has improved a little through the years, though not by very much. Still, the findings don’t suggest that calorie counts are a bust, just that they might have a greater influence on the fast food industry than its consumers.