Changes in Energy Content of Lunchtime Purchases from Fast Food Restaurants After Introduction of Calorie Labeling

This article examines the impact of calorie labeling on lunchtime purchases from major New York City fast-food restaurants, after the city’s 2008 calorie labeling requirement went into effect. In 2009, 15 percent of lunchtime customers reported using the calorie information, and these customers purchased 106 fewer calories, on average, than customers who did not see or use the calorie information (757 calories compared with 863 calories). At 168 randomly selected locations of New York City’s top 11 fast-food restaurants, the authors conducted surveys with 7,309 lunchtime customers in 2007 and 8,489 customers in 2009. The researchers surveyed customers about their use of calorie labeling, collected lunch receipts and analyzed the energy content of the meals customers purchased. Key Findings:

  • The mean number of calories purchased overall did not change significantly between 2007 and 2009.
  • Three major chains, accounting for almost half of consumers surveyed, demonstrated significant reductions in calories purchased. Average calories per purchase decreased at McDonalds, Au Bon Pain and KFC.
  • At one major chain, Subway, customers increased the average number of calories they purchased since 2007. This increase coincided with the promotion of a super-sized portion –“the $5 foot-long.”

This research indicates that while calorie labeling was associated with a drop in calories purchased at some major chains, calorie labeling did not lead to reductions across all New York City’s fast-food restaurants.