A new study by several professors at NYU and Yale has taken a close look at the purchasing habits of fast-food consumers in poor NYC neighborhoods with high rates of obesity. Researchers were curious to find out if the law requiring chain restaurants to prominently display their calorie information was influencing customers' choices, and what they found was probably not what the Health Department had hoped for when implementing the rules in 2008.
According to the report, about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. A quarter of those customers said the information had influenced their order, and 9 out of 10 of those insisted they'd made healthier choices. But then the researchers looked at the receipts and found a different story, finding that consumers had actually ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the law went into effect.
NYU's Brian Elbel, the lead author of the report, has concluded that "labels are not enough." But he doesn't say what would be enough. Is he hinting at an all-out ban on everything unhealthy, at least where the poor people live? As Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells the Times, "Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people, who are probably the least amenable to calorie labeling."
Indeed, Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis spent some time at a McDonald's in Harlem, finding some sad, "anecdotal support for the findings." One customer, in Harlem for a job interview, ordered two cheeseburgers, about 600 calories total, for $2, explaining, "It’s just cheap, so I buy it. I’m looking for the cheapest meal I can." Gift shop employee Tameika Coates says, "I don’t really care too much. I know I shouldn’t, ’cause I’m too big already." And April Matos, a 24-year-old "family specialist," took an existential approach: "Life is short. I started eating everything now I'm pregnant."