Those calorie listings fast-food joints are required to post with their menus are meeting new federal labeling laws, but they don’t do much to help consumers choose healthier options.
That’s the key finding of a new Columbia University School of Nursing study of calorie counts for 200 food items on menu boards in fast-food chain restaurants in the New York's inner-city neighborhood of Harlem.
The study, led by Elizabeth Gross Cohn, and published online in the Journal of Urban Health, analyzed items on 70 menu boards from 12 restaurant chains and then rated them for "practical utility." The researchers used the boards to calculate the number of calories in a single serving. They then combined this measure with current U.S. Food and Drug Administration menu-labeling guidelines to develop a seven-item "menu rating tool."
The researchers found that, while most restaurants have posted calorie counts, in the majority of cases there was insufficient information to make use of them. One reason: Most items on the menu boards were combination meals rather than individual items. Another: It was difficult to calculate calories per meal when the posting included anything more than an individual unit of measure.
For example, a bucket of chicken was listed at one restaurant as 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board did not indicate the number of pieces of chicken in a single serving. 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.
"Although most postings were legally compliant, they did not demonstrate utility," the authors said. "Menu postings for individual servings are easily understood, but complex math skills are needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person. In some items, calories doubled depending on flavor, and the calorie posting did not give enough information to make healthier selections."
The federal health reform law passed in March 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calorie counts and nutritional data for menu items and self-service foods. The FDA is now considering how best to guide chain restaurants in posting calorie counts on menu boards.