Do Fast-Food Nutrition Labels Matter?

Since the 1990s, foods have featured nutrition labels to help consumers make better decisions about what they put into their bodies. This labeling is great when you're shopping at the grocery store. But what if you're at, say, the rest area off the interstate, where your culinary choices consist of four fast-food restaurants and an ice cream shop?

Previously, America's dieters had the excuse that, with no available nutrition data, you could eat pretty much whatever you wanted at that roadside burger joint without really being conscious of its relative healthiness. But this all changed in 2012, the year the American Care Act called for chain restaurants to post calorie labels on menus. Now, when you go to McDonald's anywhere in the country, you can determine exactly how much fat is contained in individual items. The idea is that better-informed consumers can make better choices about what they are consuming.

But just how effective are these menu labels at fast-food restaurants? They're fast-food restaurants, after all. Is the typical customer going to show up at these places, read the menu, and opt to order a salad? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major health-care policy research donor, recently gave more than $160,000 to New England health benefits company Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to evaluate the impact of fast-food menu labeling on children and adolescents to date. (See RWJF: Grants for Public Health.)

Harvard Pilgrim, while providing insurance as a core service, also has a foundation engaged in health-care research. In particular, the company focuses on childhood obesity — also a major focus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The RWJF is committed to reversing the tide of childhood obesity by 2015, and it has invested millions of dollars in anti-childhood-obesity campaigns already this year.

Given the immense resources that must be expended if RWJF's crusade against childhood obesity is to be successful, interested organizations should check out the foundation's current calls for proposals. They include several requests related to combating the childhood obesity epidemic.