Study: Menu calorie counts don’t impact choices, at least for McDonald’s eaters

Sandwich board at the Panera store in Brookline, Mass shows the calorie count for each item. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
Sandwich board at the Panera store in Brookline, Mass shows the calorie count for each item. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Call it the McDonald’s effect. Whenever researchers test to see whether posting calorie counts on the chain’s menu boards for Big Macs, fries, and shakes will drive consumers to order less calorie-laden options, they come up with disappointing results.

In research published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, Carnegie Mellon University researchers gave more than 1,100 New York City diners heading into McDonald’s a pamplet on how many calories they should eat during a meal both before and after the city began requiring fast-food chains to post calorie counts on menus in 2008. Between then and now, the researchers found that calorie consumption didn’t drop at all and actually increased a bit—due to an increase in purchases of higher calorie entrees.

That indicates that people—at least those who frequent McDonald’s—don’t really care that much about how many calories they’re consuming.

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Another 2011 study from New York University School of Medicine researchers also found that posted calorie counts didn’t alter ordering choices at Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, and, yes, McDonald’s. But the researchers didn’t provide pamphlets educating people on the maximum calories they’re supposed to consume like they did with the new study.

On the other hand, a different study that examined ordering choices after calorie counts were posted in Starbucks found that customers ordered 6 percent fewer calories, on average, than they did before the counts were posted. And a 2010 study found that diners at the chain sandwhich restaurant Au Bon Pain consumed an average of 14 percent fewer calories when they were given calorie counts compared to when they weren’t; their calorie consumption dropped further when they had educational materials with daily calorie recommendations.

“It is unclear why the effects in our study tended to be in the opposite direction,” wrote the researchers in the latest study. Various chain restaurants have “different reputations for healthful fare, and, as a result, may attract different clientele.” Hence, the McDonald’s effect.

What’s your experience? Do you alter what you order when you see calorie counts posted next to menu items?