In 2012 the FDA is to issue regulations requiring chain restaurants to include calorie counts on their menus. The initiative, part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, has hurtled forward, even as the science supporting it remains unsettled.
But the newest findings bolster the notion that providing information about foods’ caloric content can help people make more healthful choices. Research published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health shows that when teens — in this study, black teens shopping in corner convenience stores in low-income areas in Baltimore — see signs alerting them to the caloric impact of sugar-sweetened beverages (including soda, fruit juice, energy drinks and other sugary sips), some of them choose less-caloric options.
Obesity experts single out sugar-sweetened beverages because, as the study notes, people tend not to register the amount of calories they consume through drinking them and aren’t likely to compensate by consuming fewer calories elsewhere during the day.
This study’s neat innovation was to provide calorie information via three different messages, one of each was posted on a bright-colored sign in each of four stores that were within walking distance of local middle and high schools. One simply said that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 250 calories. Another said a bottle of soda or juice contains 10 percent of the daily recommended calories. And a third noted that a teen would have to jog for 50 minutes to burn the calories in a single bottle of soda or juice.
Overall, the presence of such signs reduced the odds that a teen would buy a sugar sweetened soda by 40 percent. In particular, kids who saw the sign about physical activity were 50 percent less likely to buy a sugary beverage than they had been observed to be before the signs were posted.
Before the signs went up, water, diet soda and other beverages that aren’t sweetened with sugar made up 6.7 percent of teen customers’ purchases in those stores. After the signs, that number went up to between 12 percent and 14 percent, depending on which sign was in the store.
Calories are notoriously difficult for many people to grasp; the study points to literature showing that folks asked to estimate how many calories are in a restaurant meal tend to guess wildly wrong, underestimating by an average of 600 calories. That’s why I like the idea of the information’s being posted in terms of a workout equivalent; that’s something we can all understand, right?
The study tallied 1,600 beverage purchases by black teens (400 to establish a baseline and 400 purchases in each of three stores, each with a different sign posted). It was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Healthy Eating Research” program.