Calorie information brings down fast food calorie intake says US study

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers in the US have found that providing customers in fast food restaurants with information about the food's energy content can reduce the number of calories they consume.

Popular restaurants in England are about to voluntarily provide similar information to customers under the Government's Public Health Responsibility Deal.

According to the research, published in the British Medical Journal, there was a small but significant reduction in the amount of calories consumed during lunch at 11 restaurants following the 2008 introduction of a law requiring chains to provide calorie information on menus and menu boards in the New York.

It found that calorie labelling can form part of an overall strategy to improve health by encouraging people to have a healthier diet and reduce energy intake across the wider population.

Research published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2009 showed that 19,000 cases of cancer a year could be caused by current levels of overweight and obesity. Further research has shown obesity contributes to an increased risk of cancer of the bowel, womb, oesophagus, breast in post-menopausal women and many other forms of the disease.

The World Health Organisation says that obesity is behind only tobacco as the second most important avoidable cause of cancer.

"Special attention should be focused on educating customers on how to interpret and use nutrition information," researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conclude.

By analysing till receipts from thousands of customers before and after the law was brought in locally, the researchers found no decline in the whole sample. However they did identify a significant reduction in calorie intake at three major chains.

Customers at McDonalds showed an average energy per purchase reduction of 5.3%, at Au Bon Pain, it fell by 14.4% and at KFC, it dropped by 6.4%. People eating at these three restaurants made up 42% of all customers in the study. These falls were balanced by an average energy content increase of 17.8% at Subway, where large portions were heavily promoted.

Layla Theiner, public affairs manager at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the study.

"Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing several cancers, and poor diet also increases the risk of the disease," she said.

"This study provides more evidence that clear nutrition labelling can help people understand more about the food they are buying, and can encourage them to make the healthy food choices necessary to help reduce cancer risk".

Dr Susan Jebb from the MRC Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge believes that labelling is a step forward, but changes in food supply must follow. She writes: "Calorie labelling will help consumers make an informed choice about what they eat, but sustained improvements in the nation's diet will require a transformation of the food supply too."

Copyright Press Association 2011