June 10, 2015

Do Calorie Labeling Laws Change How Much We Eat?

By cancerconnect

New legislation is requiring that chain restaurants, as well as some retail food establishments and vending machines, provide accurate labels for menu items. Labeling, which has been implemented to help consumers make healthier choices and avoid excess calories, sounds great, but will it work?

In an effort to reduce rates of obesity and related health issues, several U.S. cities and states have introduced calorie-labeling laws. We can also expect to see these changes on a national scale, as nutrition labeling guidelines under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are implemented. The big question is whether or not knowing in advance how many calories foods deliver will tame our consumption.

To begin to understand how calorie labeling might affect our national waistline, researchers evaluated fast food consumption in two cities—Philadelphia, which had implemented a calorie labeling policy, and Baltimore, both before and after a labeling policy had been put in place. To measure calorie consumption in these cities and whether or not consumers accurately estimated their consumption, the researchers surveyed fast food customers and collected receipts.

It appears that calorie labeling might not successfully curb our appetites or help us make healthier choices. The researchers found that with or without labeling, diners tended to underestimate the calories in the food they purchased. They misjudged calorie content by an average of around 200 to 400 calories—enough to make a difference in weight gain or maintenance.

If calorie labeling helped anyone make healthier choices, it was college-educated consumers. Individuals with a BA or higher education still tended to underestimate calories in the food the purchased, but did so to a lesser degree than people without college education. Diners who ordered smaller meals also tended to better estimate their calories, whereas women and people who ordered large meals were the least accurate.

Based on this study, calorie labeling might not be the much-needed solution to our nation’s obesity epidemic. But because certain groups do appear to be paying attention to this information, there’s hope for positive change. In the meantime, those of us who are eager to make healthy dietary choices can make good use of the new labeling.


Reference: Taksler GB, Brian E. Calorie Labeling and Consumer Estimation of Calories Purchased. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. doi:10.1186/s12966-014-0091-2.

Tags: Nutritional Know-How