The Need to Improve Fast-Food Nutrition Information
Consumers may find it difficult to figure out the calorie information that is available for menu items meant to serve several people.
The calorie counts that fast-food restaurants provide for their menu items are designed to help diners make healthy food choices. But it seems that the information has not been as helpful as intended to be.
The Problem with Calorie Counts Provided by Restaurants
This study made a listing of the 200 food items from the menu of the top 12 restaurants in Harlem, New York City. The researchers also included the calorie information of the food items.
Not Consumer Friendly
Many combo meals and their calorie counts were included in the listing. These types of meals serve multiple people, so the calorie counts were big numbers and not tailored for individual consumption.
One example is the bucket of fried chicken which has a calorie count of 3,240 to 12,360. The information provided on the menu board was really not enough as it did not indicate the number of chicken pieces per serving.
Another example is the sandwich combo meal which is said to contain 500 to 2,080 calories. The information provided is not helpful enough to tell the consumers how to order this item with the lower calorie content.
Calorie Listings Made Just to Comply
The federal law requires restaurants with at least 20 branches to provide caloric information for the food items they serve, including self-serve foods. Many of the restaurants comply with this ruling on U.S. food labeling; however, the researchers found that the information are not very helpful to the consumers.
Single-serve menu items, together with their calorie information, are quite helpful to consumers who would like to know the healthier choice. But, the calorie information of meals for two or for a group is not as easily understood by the consumers. Not everyone would bother to use their math skills just to know the right calorie count. Also, some information may be lacking as in the case of two similar menu items but one has twice the calorie content just because of a difference in flavor.
The Improvised Calorie Listing
Restaurants should not provide calorie listings just to comply with the state requirements. They should consider the ability of consumers to easily make use of the information, taking into account, for example, the level of math literacy required. The researchers recommend using a revised information system. For example, an egg sandwich will be posted as “with ham/bacon/sausage” and show the corresponding calorie count as 350/550/750. This will tell the consumers what exactly are their menu options.
Chain restaurants in low-income, high-density communities, in particular, need to provide simpler calorie postings to match the educational attainment and math skills of the population. This will then increase the utility of the restaurant menu boards.
Photo credits: Fast Food Menu with Calorie Rating by King Huang via Flickr, CC by 2.0