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What calorie count-based marketing strategies don’t tell you

Photo: SteFou! via Flickr

Last week, McDonalds launched an effort to group its fast food offerings by calorie count.  The new system clusters some menu items into what the chain is calling “Favorites Under 400 Calories.”

The restaurant isn’t the first to develop marketing strategies around public and legislative demand for more transparent nutritional information and if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues expected calorie count guidelines later this year they won’t be the last.

On the surface, a shift toward more transparent, healthier menus might seem ideal.  After all, the more information consumers have the better, right?

Well, maybe.

Some University of Minnesota School of Public Health experts warn that marketing campaigns based solely around calorie counts neglect to remind consumers that adding up a few “favorites” or lower-calorie options still often results in high caloric intake and an absence of foods with high overall nutritional value.

In a sense, clustering foods in creative ways may be hiding other valuable insight into the food’s actual nutritional value.

“How many people are going into fast food restaurants to get one item?” said University of Minnesota epidemiology research associate Andrew Odegaard, Ph.D., M.P.H. “How many people go there for apple slices or a side salad?  The bread and butter of these companies are hamburgers or sandwiches, fries and related snacks, and there’s no evidence to suggest the vast majority of these foods are good for your health, regardless of calorie content.”

According to Odegaard, scientific evidence suggests eating fast food is probably detrimental to your health if consumed regularly.  And while calories matter – overall nutritional content of food is just as important.

“The problem with calorie-count focused marketing is that calories are not all equal when it comes to health,” said School of Public Health epidemiologist Ellen Demerath, Ph.D.  “While two menu items might both contain 300 calories, they don’t have the same carbohydrate, fat or sodium content.  Therefore advertising them as foods consumers should feel good about eating regularly just because of their calorie count can be misleading.”

Demerath points out that fast food generally isn’t a good source of fresh fruits and vegetables or food with high dietary fiber – all items that are critical in the prevention of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

So it appears that marketing menu items around calorie counts is just that – marketing.  What remains up for debate is whether the marketing is even effective.

School of Public Health epidemiologist Mark Pereira, Ph.D., M.P.H., notes that scientific research – albeit of a limited scope – suggests menu changes and labeling have thus far had little or no impact on customer buying behavior.  It appears that if consumers want to eat fast food, they’ll simply eat fast food.

“It’s important to remember that fast food restaurants have no obligation to make calorie and nutrient changes because they’re a private enterprise in a free-market, capitalist society,” he said.  “The only obligation these companies have is to follow the law in terms of food safety in relation to the environment, their employees and their customers.”

According to Pereira, the longer-term health implications relating to portion sizes, calories, and nutrients as they may relate to obesity and chronic disease risk is the business of scientists, government, and policy makers.

So stay tuned.

Coming next week: Health Talk will discuss how one University of Minnesota epidemiologist believes breaking fast food menus down by calorie count could have a positive outcome for people on limited budgets trying to determine the healthiest options they can afford.  Historically, fast food provides a cheap option for low income residents trying to feed their families.  Calorie counts may help parents make the best decisions on those scenarios.  More to come.

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