Calorie Labels: Not Quite Enough to Defeat the Baconator

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September 17, 2012 by lizzyannsanders

With 30% of America’s calorie consumption coming from “food away from home”, public health leaders have focused their attention on how to prompt people to make smarter choices in restaurants. Several studies have shown that eating out means eating more: an average of 134 kcals more per day. That can really add up, and since the percentage of calories from “food away from home” continuing to increase… helping people make better choices is more important than ever.

Mandatory menu labeling is the primary vehicle that public health leaders are using to change America’s eating habits in restaurants. Unfortunately however, analysis of results from labeling campaigns has shown that it is only marginally effective (at best) in reducing the public’s calorie consumption. There are several reasons why calorie labeling may not be effective, but there are also several ways in which we could potentially increase its effectiveness. The systematic review by Swartz et al. suggests that low health literacy might be hampering the effectiveness of menu labeling. These menu labels provide a lot of important information, but many people may not understand the significance of choosing low calorie. It is also important to note that (without proper nutrition education to go along with the menu labeling), people might not understand how many calories they need to eat in a day. Furthermore, people may have trouble doing math on the spot, or may not have good low calorie items to compare and choose in lieu of higher calorie items.

Good education efforts to go along with menu labeling can help increase health literacy and shift the public’s decisional balance in favor of making healthy choices. When a person walks into a restaurant they are bombarded with sights and smells of high calorie options. It will likely take more than just a sign with calorie information to make someone choose a grilled chicken salad over a “Baconator.” Industry needs to work hand in hand with public health to develop appetizing, lower-calorie alternatives that can compete with the higher-calorie favorites. People would be much more likely to choose a lower-calorie option if it was equally as flavorful and appealing as a higher-calorie option.

– Liz Sanders (C3)

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2 thoughts on “Calorie Labels: Not Quite Enough to Defeat the Baconator

  1. Folks in marketing know that there is large market segmentation. A simplification is to think about these 2 groups: There is the sub-population who are trying to lose weight & watch their diets — those are looking for the “healthier options”. But there are also the sub-population of mostly males, who have been trained via years of marketing to equate high caloric, cheesy, meaty options with being manly/macho. The food service industry is now battling over these different shares. How should the public health advocates respond or act in light of these various segments of the market? Is there one strategy that can fit all??

  2. hkari2012 says:

    The other caveat that needs to be considered is that caloric content does not disclose the quality of the dish. As in, the caloric content of the Baconater is not the only indicator for discouraging consumption of the Baconater on a frequent, habitual basis. However if the sodium, saturated fat, carbohydrate and protein content is also supplied much more nutrition education is needed for consumers to evaluate those nutrients as well. Choosing a dish based solely on caloric content won’t curb the obesity epidemic.

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