Monday, February 28, 2011

Questionable Calorie Counting: Part II

Last week we opined about the self serving NYC DOH study of its menu labeling. In this week's Crain's we are force fed so more pablum from the agency on the topic: "The city's 2008 menu-labeling law has been criticized since the day it was implemented as being both burdensome to chain restaurants and ineffective for customers: No study had shown that posting calorie information induces restaurant patrons to make healthier selections. That could change. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says its new research shows that the 15% of fast-food patrons in the city who use the information eat an average of 106 fewer calories than those who don't see or ignore the calorie content."

Nah, not very likely-and who's gonna believe the department that gets to mark its own test papers? For a more realistic appraisal of the DOH self survey, listen to NYU's Marion Nestle-a proponent of aggressive intervention for healthier eating: "New York University used a similar approach in a February study of teenagers who ate at fast-food outlets. But researchers concluded that their calorie intake was unchanged. “Most studies show very, very small effects,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at NYU. The city's study could be significant. “It shows a small effect, but it's bigger than any other that has been seen.”

The department, of course, refused to share its methodology with Crains: "City officials refused to share further details because the study is being peer-reviewed for possible publication in an academic journal. The research project, begun in the spring of 2009, cataloged 12,000 lunch receipts at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and eight other fast-food chains in the city."

Well, the last effort by the department to get peer reviewed on menu labeling fell flat-and independent studies-like this one-have shown no effect whatsoever. As the authors tell us: "We examined the influence of menu calorie labels on fast food choices in the wake of New York City’s labeling mandate. Receipts and survey responses were collected from 1,156 adults at fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority New York communities. These were compared to a sample in Newark, New Jersey, a city that had not introduced menu labeling. We found that 27.7 percent who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices. However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling. We encourage more research on menu labeling and greater attention to evaluating and implementing other obesity-related policies."

As we told Crains: "Critics said the law is a compliance hassle for food operators and has had little measurable benefit. Richard Lipsky, a small business lobbyist who has represented restaurant owners, said the city's findings were self-serving. “They should be taken with a grain of salt,” he said. “No pun intended.”