Can food labels induce parents to order fewer fast-food calories?

April 1, 2015

“Perhaps” is the short answer to this question, according to results of a survey of more than 800 parents to determine how various types of menu labeling affect what parents order for their children in fast-food restaurants.

“Perhaps” is the short answer to this question, according to results of a survey of more than 800 parents to determine how various types of menu labeling affect what parents order for their children in fast-food restaurants.

Investigators gave participants 1 of 4 types of menus for a hypothetical fast-food restaurant: 1 without caloric or exercise labeling; 1 listing calories only for menu items; or 1 of 2 physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) menus, including either calories plus minutes needed to walk to burn the calories in the food item or calories plus miles needed to walk to burn the calories in the food item. Respondents were asked to place an order for their child using the menu they were given. Investigators then showed them a calorie-only label and both PACE labels and asked them to rate on a 5-point scale the likelihood (ranging from “very unlikely” to “very likely”) that each label would lead them to encourage their child to exercise.

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The mean age of the child for whom the parent placed a hypothetical food order was 9.5 years and, overall, the selected meal consisted of 1125 calories. Parents given a menu without caloric or exercise information labels chose meals averaging 1294 calories whereas those given calorie or exercise-equivalent information selected meals of about 200 fewer calories.

Parents reported that calories-only labeling, as well as PACE labeling, probably would influence their selection of fast food for their children, with the PACE labels slightly more influential than calories-only labeling at the “very likely” end of the scale. In addition, 20% of parents reported that calories-only labeling would “very likely” prompt them to encourage their children to exercise. For this, the PACE labels were significantly more influential at the “very likely” end of the scale (Viera AJ, et al. Pediatrics. 2015;135[2]:e376-e382).   

Commentary: It’s reassuring to know that, given the caloric information needed, parents will often make dietary choices that benefit their children. Public health measures requiring restaurant chains to list caloric content are helpful to parents and are a vital part of the multidimensional approach that is required to reverse the epidemic of obesity. Whereas addition of exercise equivalence data didn’t further reduce caloric content chosen by parents in this study, more than 35% of parents stated that having that information would cause them to encourage more exercise by their children. -Michael G Burke, MD  

Ms Freedman is a freelance medical editor and writer in New Jersey. Dr Burke, section editor for Journal Club, is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Agnes Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland. The editors have nothing to disclose in regard to affiliations with or financial interests in any organizations that may have an interest in any part of this article.