Restaurant calorie labels less likely to influence poor, uneducated

People with higher income and education levels are more likely to make food choices based on calorie information in restaurant menus, according to a recent study that calls for new ways of displaying the information to make a wider impact.

More than half of participants in the study of McDonald’s diners noticed menu calorie labels, but only 16 percent used the information to alter their eating habits.

The calorie labels, which will become mandatory at the end of 2015 for large U.S. restaurant chains, are intended to help consumers make healthier choices. But past studies have produced mixed results on their effectiveness.

“We think that this inconsistency is partly because calorie menu labels do not influence all segments of the population in the same manner,” said Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University and the study’s senior author.

Ohri-Vachaspati and colleagues collected customer receipts and surveyed 329 people at 29 McDonald’s locations in and around Phoenix. Half of the restaurants were in high-income neighborhoods and half were in low-income neighborhoods. McDonald’s has been posting calorie labels on its menus since 2012.

The research team analyzed the purchases and responses to determine the total number of calories in each customer’s order and how likely customers were to notice or use the menu labels. Customers also gave information about their education level and socioeconomic status.

About 60 percent of participants said that they noticed the menus’ calorie labels, but only 16 percent reported actually using the information when choosing a food or drink order. People who did use the labels ate about 150 fewer calories than those who did not.

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