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July 6, 2011

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Diners ignore health tags on fast food

WHO chooses high-vegetable food options over hamburgers? Not college students, if a study is any guide.

Menu labels on college cafeteria food that highlight the nutritional good and the bad of various meal options make no difference in students' choices, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The results add to evidence that despite laws in some cities mandating calorie counts on fast-food menus, nutritional information makes little difference to people when they are eating out.

"Although it is important to inform consumers about the nutritional characteristics of the food offered, providing nutrition information in less healthy food environments such as fast-food restaurants is unlikely to alter consumers' food choices," writes Christine Hoefkens and Wim Verbeke, two of the study's authors.

The research team, based at Ghent University in Belgium, asked 224 people who regularly ate at two of the university's cafeterias to log their diets for several days.

Then the researchers put up posters in the cafeterias that rated meals on how healthy they were - zero stars for the least healthy to three stars for the most healthy. Study participants and other diners didn't know the posters were part of a study.

Labels next to menu items also highlighted whether a meal was high in salt, calories, saturated fats or vegetables.

Six months later, the participants, who were mostly female undergraduates, again logged what they ate for a few days.

Though the researchers predicted the diners would have responded to the posters and made healthier food choices, they found no difference in the number of meals eaten from each star category.

The results were not surprising, says Lisa Harnack, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the study.

"In studies, when you ask people how important nutrition is to them when they're ordering food from a restaurant menu, it's far less important than a food price or taste. It's just not a consideration," she says.

US cities such as New York and Philadelphia require fast-food chain restaurants to include calorie information on menus, while the health care reform bill passed in 2010 will also require that fast-food restaurants and vending machines include nutritional information.

What was concerning about the college student population was that the cafeteria meals were often their main source of food, Hoefkens and Verbeke say.

But others, such as Gail Kaye, the nutrition program director at Ohio State University, says that menu labels might still work to encourage healthier eating if they were paired with a healthier-leaning menu.

In the Ghent study, for instance, 70 percent of the meals earned zero or one stars, both before and after the labels, with the students' meal choices mirroring the proportion of offerings in each star category.

"If they had more healthy options there, they might have chosen them," she adds.


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