You won’t find too many food cures residing in your local fast-food chains. But reality is what it is, and a huge proportion of the U.S. eats regularly inside these restaurants. Recently, federal regulations forced these companies to list calories on their menus. The idea was to help diners make healthy meal choices. A new study suggests that this might not be working.
The health news comes out of the Columbia University School of Nursing. Researchers studied the calorie counts for 200 food items on menu boards in fast-food chain restaurants in Harlem. Since 2006, New York City has had a standard menu labeling law that includes some, though not all, of the new federal requirements.
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The calorie postings were complying with the law, but the question is whether we as diners can figure out the details. A single serving, for instance, is easy to understand. But for the fast food meals, with different flavors to choose from, designed to serve more than one person, the information was not enough to make healthy choices.
As of now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering how best to guide chain restaurants in posting calorie counts on menu boards. To help fight the toll of obesity in the nation, calorie advertising is thought to be one good tool. It has come to light that consumers are mostly unaware of — or inaccurately estimate — the number of calories in restaurant foods.
Researchers investigated 70 menus from 12 restaurant chains, totaling 200 food items. They found that, in the majority of cases, there was insufficient information to make use of them at the point of purchase. One reason is that food items were in “combo” meals rather than sold as individual items. When food items are more complex, counting calories is far more challenging. In some cases, a diner would have to do several mathematical and nutritional calculations in order to understand the calories involved.
Here is an example. A bucket of chicken was listed as 3,240 to 12,360 calories. But you couldn’t determine the number of pieces of chicken in a serving size. And a hero combo meal ranged from 500 to 2,080 calories, but diners couldn’t know how to order in the lower range of calories. What needs to happen, they say, is something like this: a breakfast sandwich could be listed as “egg with ham/bacon/sausage: 350/550/750 calories.” Then it is completely clear which choice is best.
Fast food is not going away and a lot of people depend on it because of its lower cost. But its health impact can be improved, and consumers understanding their healthier choices is an absolute must.