Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Myth: Nutrition labels on fast foods improve choices.

Nicole Senior

Fact: Knowledge doesn’t always lead to behavior change
The Victorian State Government in Australia recently decided to make displaying kilojoule (calorie) content and percentage Daily Intake (%DI) compulsory on fast food chain menus. And where you can see it when you order, not hidden away in a brochure, on the website or in small print on the packaging. It is hoped that customers will use this information to make healthier choices. To help them think twice about ordering a meal containing 50% of their daily kilojoule requirements, and ultimately reduce obesity rates. It sounds like a great idea, but will it work?

New York City has a similar program which came into full swing last year. While it’s too early to say it’s been a flop, initial research results have been disappointing. A study by New York University compared fast food purchases in New York City (with calorie counts on menus) and neighbouring Newark without and found there was no difference between calorie content of what customers bought in stores with calorie counts compared to those without calorie counts. This, despite the fact that 28% customers said calorie counts had influenced them to order better: a classic case of saying one thing and doing another. Worthy of note is that the stores were in poor neighbourhoods. Could it be that the socially disadvantaged benefit less from the ‘information is power’ approach?

Hambuger with nutrition information

Another question about effectiveness of such a move is: Do people really care whether fast food is healthy or not? Obviously the majority (72%) in the New York study didn’t. Or do people purchase for other reasons such as taste, price and convenience?

Young men are big consumers of fast food and well known for their risk-taking behaviour. I’ve heard stories of young men daring each other to eat the unhealthiest item on fast food menus, and gain the respect of their peers when they manage to stuff down two or three ‘meals’ … plus dessert! Some socially unaware fast food companies depend on such ‘extreme-eating’. You know, the ones that have 72oz (2kg) steaks on the menu: free to those who can finish it. Obscene.

Information may be empowering but when it comes to what we eat, information only goes so far. Is there anyone left who believes a burger and fries or deep fried chicken and fries are healthy meals? We know it, but we are apparently helpless to take meaningful action. Nutrition information is everywhere (albeit much of it is unreliable) but the world is just getting fatter.

There is a lot to be said for improving all fast food. What about requiring nutritional standards for kilojoule (calorie), saturated fat, salt and vegetable content? The Heart Foundation Tick program for fast food in Australia has made good progress in this area, but participation is not compulsory and relies on companies opting in.

Fast food is a reality in a busy world but can local planning laws help to correct the situation that there are more fast food joints and less fresh food stores in poor areas?

I support knowledge to empower people to choose healthier food, but should it be so hard? And should it be hardest for those with the least resources to resist the pull of cheap, convenient and fast food?

Nicole Senior MSc (Nut&Diet) BSc (Nut) is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Eat to Beat Cholesterol and Heart Food . Check out her website HERE.