In an effort to curb the obesity epidemic in California, the state senate passed Senate Bill 1420 in 2008. The Bill requires chain restaurants in California to provide nutritional information including the total number of calories, grams of saturated fat, grams of trans fat, and milligrams of sodium, on their menus and menu boards. Furthermore, it defines a chain restaurant as a food facility with “at least 14 other food facilities with the same name in the state that offer for sale substantially the same menu items.”
Phase I of SB 1420 has been in effect since this July, but will it truly make a difference? A study conducted by New York University and Yale says otherwise. The study monitored McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in neighborhoods with high rates of obesity in New York City before and after New York menu labeling laws took effect in July 2008. They found that only half of customers noticed the menu labeling, and of those who noticed, only 28% said it influenced their ordering. Even more surprising, the receipts before and after the law took effect showed that people actually ordered more after menu boards displayed total calories.
The researchers that lead the study believe that there are multiple reasons why menu labeling has not been seen to work in these neighborhoods. They believe that the primary roadblock to healthy eating is money. At McDonald’s, customers can order two cheeseburgers that pack a whopping 600 calories total for only $2. Another possible reason is that in these neighborhoods with high rates of obesity, those who are already obese have already given up on trying to lose weight. Yet another reason is that it’s just plain hard to change behavior.
Advocates of menu labeling laws don’t see these findings as a reason to abandon calorie posting, however. They believe that by making people aware of the nutritional content in their food, they will be able to contemplate making healthier decisions in the long run.