Study: Menu labeling leads to baby steps toward healthier eating

SEATTLE -- Eighteen months after King County chain restaurants were required to post nutrition information, customers are eating 38 fewer calories - or the equivalent of one-tenth of a chili cheese burrito from Taco Bell - per meal. And, local health advocates say that's progress.

Seattle & King County Public Health partnered with Children's Hospital researchers to study the impact menu labeling might have on consumer behaviors. Researchers surveyed more than 7,300 patrons at restaurants such as Subway, McDonalds, Taco Bell and Starbucks before the labeling regulation went into effect, six months after it started, and again at 18 months.

Little change was seen six months after the law took effect. But, after 18 months researchers found the average calories per purchase at a chain restaurant dropped by 38 calories, from 908.5 to 870.4, regardless of whether customers reported seeing or using the calorie information.

"It's a small amount per purchase but a lot of people are going to these establishments so it has population-level impacts," said Dr. Brian Saelens, an Investigator at Seattle Children's Research Institute and co-author of the study.

One-third of consumers reported using the calorie information when selecting a meal, and their consumption dropped an average of 143 calories.

"I'm surprised that we didn't see an effect until 18 months after the regulation," Saelens said. "The first couple times you ignore the information, but constant repeated exposure helped people make healthier choices."

King County Councilmember Julia Patterson was the prime sponsor behind the menu-labeling regulation in 2007. She said she's not surprised by the study's findings.

"We felt very strongly that when the public is given the chance to make an informed decision they'll do the right thing," Patterson said. "We end up reducing obesity, diabetes and heart disease - all leading causes of death and disability in King County."

Patterson said she has noticed restaurants offering new, lower-calorie items since menu labeling began. She said Starbucks cut back on calories and fat in its pastry items and reduced the fat in beverages by about 40 percent.

The Affordable Care Act will require chain restaurants throughout the country to post calorie information on menus and provide additional information to consumers upon request, including total fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

"There's no 'silver bullet' to solve national obesity epidemic but menu labeling is one very important strategy," Patterson said. "Over time it will change the norms of what people do when they order from a fast food restaurant."

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