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Study finds fast-food menu calorie counts confusing for consumers

In 2008 New York State began requiring certain eateries to post calorie information prominently on menu boards and menus. Other states, including California, soon followed suit. But so far such nutritional information hasn't proven to be particularly helpful in American's battle against the bulge, as shown by a 2009 study.

Now findings recently published in the Journal of Urban Health suggest that these calorie listings may not be effective because consumers have a hard time comprehending the information and using it to make healthier choices.

In the study (subscription required), researchers at the Columbia University School of Nursing snapped digital pictures of menu boards found in fast-food restaurants in a low-income neighborhood, and they conducted an analysis of the calorie counts for 200 food items. According to a university release:

The researchers found that, while most restaurants studied have posted calorie counts, in the majority of cases there was insufficient information to make use of them at the point of purchase. One reason for this was that the majority of the items on the menu boards studied were combination meals rather than individual items. Furthermore, it was increasingly difficult to calculate calories per meal when the posting included anything more than an individual unit of measure.

Calorie counts became more challenging as the food items became more complex, especially combination and multi-serving items, which represented the largest percentage of items recorded. These required several mathematical and nutritional calculations, which might be more challenging among low socioeconomic groups in urban areas where fast-food chain restaurants tend to be most concentrated.

For example, the study reports, a bucket of chicken was listed as 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board did not contain enough information to determine the number of pieces of chicken in a serving size. Similarly, a hero combo meal ranged from 500 to 2,080 calories, but no information was provided on how a consumer would order within the lower range of this menu item. Specialty pizzas were offered in wide ranges without a clear explanation as to how they differed, since the calorie count was based on a standard size and standard set of toppings.

The researchers concluded that simplifying calorie postings would help menu boards become more useful.

Previously: More chain restaurants offering nutritional information, healthier options, Study shows menu labeling prompts parents to make more nutritious choices for kids and One cappuccino please – hold the croissant

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