Research in the area of food law and policy is both varied and fascinating—even if more than a little of it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
I’ve previously looked at studies on whether food logos make kids fat, whether organic food is a waste of money, whether Americans are cool or warm to the idea of food freedom, and whether alcohol is the new soda.
A new study highlighting how youths eat in fast food restaurants serves up some interesting lessons on caloric intake—and on research on that topic.
The new article in the Journal of Public Health, by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researcher Holly Wethington and her colleagues, explores whether adolescents and teens utilize calorie information to inform their food choices in fast food/chain restaurants.
The article looks at “the proportion of youth who reported using calorie information when available at fast food/chain restaurants.”
Previous research has often questioned the validity and effectiveness of mandatory menu labeling.
As Chicago Tribune columnist Monica Eng wrote last year, “People may notice calorie counts on menu boards but, so far, few use the data to make significant changes to their orders.”
Eng noted a New York University study that found just 9 percent of teens used menu labeling to inform their choices.
The NYU report concluded that while “a few considered the information when ordering.... [w]e found no statistically significant differences in calories purchased before and after labeling” regulations in New York City took effect.
In the case of the CDC researchers’ study, the authors correctly point out several limitations of their work. They note that there’s no way they can determine whether the youths surveyed made better or worse choices with the calorie information they had in hand; that the study cannot determine causality; and that the reliability and validity of the questions posed were not tested.
I noticed a few other important limitations.
At first glance, the utilization of calorie information seems quite high in this study compared to that of the NYU study cited by Eng, also referenced by the CDC study authors.
The CDC authors claim “40% of youth who noticed calorie labeling information within a fast food/chain restaurant reported using calorie information[.]” Recall that the NYU study reported just 9 percent utilized calorie information.
But a closer look at the data and collection methods tightens some of the discrepancies.
The CDC authors did not include teens and adolescents who reported eating at fast food/chain restaurants but who never noticed menu labeling. When included in the data analysis, the percentage of respondents who eat at fast food/chain restaurants and don’t notice or use calorie information rises to 65.9 percent, while the percentage of those who say they noticed the information and used it at least once falls to 34.1 percent.