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Child and adolescent fast-food choice and the influence of calorie labeling: a natural experiment



Obesity is an enormous public health problem and children have been particularly highlighted for intervention. Of notable concern is the fast-food consumption of children . However, we know very little about how children or their parents make fast-food choices, including how they respond to mandatory calorie labeling. We examined children's and adolescents’ fast-food choice and the influence of calorie labels in low-income communities in New York City (NYC) and in a comparison city (Newark, NJ).


Natural experiment: Survey and receipt data were collected from low-income areas in NYC, and Newark, NJ (as a comparison city), before and after mandatory labeling began in NYC. Study restaurants included four of the largest chains located in NYC and Newark: McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.


A total of 349 children and adolescents aged 1–17 years who visited the restaurants with their parents (69%) or alone (31%) before or after labeling was introduced. In total, 90% were from racial or ethnic minority groups.


We found no statistically significant differences in calories purchased before and after labeling; many adolescents reported noticing calorie labels after their introduction (57% in NYC) and a few considered the information when ordering (9%). Approximately 35% of adolescents ate fast food six or more times per week and 72% of adolescents reported that taste was the most important factor in their meal selection. Adolescents in our sample reported that parents have some influence on their meal selection.


Adolescents in low-income communities notice calorie information at similar rates as adults, although they report being slightly less responsive to it than adults. We did not find evidence that labeling influenced adolescent food choice or parental food choices for children in this population.

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We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research program, Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the NYU Wagner Dean's Fund and the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute (R01HL095935). Special thanks to Kevin Lyu, Kristin Van Busum and Melinda Newe for their excellent research assistance, as well as to Courtney Abrams. We also express our appreciation to Kelly Brownell and Marion Nestle for their thoughtful advice on this project.

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Correspondence to B Elbel.

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Elbel, B., Gyamfi, J. & Kersh, R. Child and adolescent fast-food choice and the influence of calorie labeling: a natural experiment. Int J Obes 35, 493–500 (2011).

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