Shining light on fast food calories

Special to The Times

No one's looking to make you go on a diet. But there's a law in the works in Sacramento that might -- just might -- help you lose weight -- or so says a study released Thursday.

The proposed law, SB 1420, which the state Senate has passed and the Assembly will consider soon, would require chain restaurants with 15 or more outlets in California to list the calorie content for each item on their menus and menu boards. (The menus would also include other nutritional information, such as grams of fat and carbohydrates.)

Advocates believe such a "menu-labeling law" could help to halt, or at least slow, the trend that has led to 3 out of 5 Californians being overweight or obese. The new study -- by the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley -- is the latest evidence suggesting they may be right.

By the researchers' calculations, if the law were in effect, adult fast-food customers might, on average, end up weighing nearly 3 pounds less after a year, thanks to having eaten 9,300 fewer calories.

Even if only 80% of the customers see the calorie information, "That adds up to 40 million pounds in the state of California," says Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy in Davis, which published the study on its website.

Other health experts are less sure what the law would do to Californians' waistlines. On the one hand, they say, a hefty number of studies augur well for the law's success: studies that show just how much fast food people eat, and studies that show how badly people -- even nutrition mavens -- underestimate calorie content when left to do the math themselves.

"People are notoriously inaccurate," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven.

Still, there's no definitive proof that the law will make people cut calories -- the kind of proof that could only come from a controlled study of what happens after a law of this sort goes into effect.

"The law is a reasonable thing to try," says James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. "You could argue that this is just what people are needing, that when they have this information, they'll make all the right choices. Or you could argue that people already know they're doing the wrong things, but they do them anyway."

Where's the data saying it might work? Anecdotal evidence gleaned from New York City, where a similar law has been in effect for about a month, is pretty dramatic, says Amanda Bloom, policy director at the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "Diners are shocked at what they're seeing. And restaurants say they're selling out of their lowest calorie choices when they never were before."

Last year, before that law was in force, researchers analyzed the purchasing patterns of more than 7,000 customers at 11 fast-food chains in New York City for a study appearing this month in the American Journal of Public Health.

Then, only one of the 11 chains offered calorie-content information in a way that customers could easily see and use it. That was Subway, which provided the information on the splash guard between customers and the ingredients that go into their sandwiches -- so they could refer to it when they placed their orders.

(Calorie information at other chains was provided in less in-your-face locations such as in brochures or on websites.)

When surveyed, 32% of Subway's customers said they saw calorie information, and of those, 37% said the information affected their orders.

That means about 12% of all Subway customers said the information affected their orders.

Researchers compared the average calorie content in meals ordered by Subway customers who said they saw calorie information with customers who didn't, and found that those who said they saw the information ordered meals consisting of 714 calories, on average, versus 766 for those who said they didn't see it -- 52 fewer calories, or about a 7% reduction.

Then the researchers looked closer at the juicy details, finding that customers who saw calorie information and said it affected them ordered meals containing 647 calories, versus 746 for customers who saw the information and said it didn't affect them; in other words, they bought meals with 99 fewer calories, on average -- a 13% reduction.

Statistically speaking, the difference between those who saw information but ignored it and those who didn't see it at all is too small to count. Essentially, those who said it didn't affect them ordered like customers who didn't see the information.

Researchers conducting the just-released California study used the New York City results to project how many calories citizens here might avoid eating annually if the menu-labeling law gets passed.

To do that, they needed to know how often people eat at fast-food restaurants.

Lots of customers

Turns out, if you haven't been to a fast- food restaurant lately, you're an exceptional human being, or an exceptional Californian at any rate. A consumer survey last year found that 4 out of 5 adults in the state's largest market areas (Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco) made fast-food purchases at least once a month, and on average 3.44 times a week, or just about once every two days.

Using those numbers, the researchers used a simple formula to calculate how many calories an average fast-food eater might not eat if the proposed law is passed: (52 calories saved per visit) x (3.44 visits per week) x (52 weeks in the year), which comes out to about 9,300 calories per year.

Because consuming 3,500 excess calories translates to 1 pound of weight gain, cutting out 9,300 calories would make a person's weight about 2.7 pounds less at the end of a year than it would be otherwise.

That might not sound like a lot, Bloom says. "But from a public health perspective, we just need a good number of people making small changes." After all, 2.7 pounds multiplied by millions of people starts to add up.

The calculation above assumes that the person would see the calorie information. It also assumes that restaurants won't make any changes to items on their menus -- although it seems likely that they will, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

If so, the law's slimming effects could be even greater.

Legislation has been the mother of product reformulation before, for instance, when trans-fat labeling was required on food packages.

"There's been a 50% decrease in the amount of partially hydrogenated oil used in North America," Wootan says. "We hope and expect that chain restaurants will reformulate their offerings to reduce calories or offer half-portions or whatever."

But there are still open questions.

For example, who's to say that people won't make up for the calories they don't eat at fast-food restaurants by eating more later?

And who knows if 37% of people who see the calorie information will make different choices because of it, as did the Subway customers in the New York study?

There is some evidence that this figure may be high.

A number of studies have shown that typically only 15% to 20% of people pay attention to labels.

Consumer rights

But Yale's Brownell thinks the law would still be a plus. Even if calorie information doesn't make any difference, he says, "there's still the issue of the consumer's right to know."

In 2007, the Field Research Corp., which does marketing and public opinion research, polled 523 registered voters and reported that 84% of Californians say they want to know about calories and other nutritional content in restaurant food.

And whatever they do with that information if they get it, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "I don't think they're going to be eating more food."

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