Duke Fuqua researchers say more detail needed for calorie ranges
DURHAM, N.C. -- Consumers could make more informed dietary choices if the calorie ranges currently required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were more specific, new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business finds.
Physician and behavioral scientist Dr. Peter Ubel, along with Fuqua Ph.D. candidate Peggy Liu and their co-authors, found that calorie ranges -- for example, one burrito equals 410-1,185 calories -- are best understood when consumers understand what ingredients make up the calories at the high and low parts of the range.
"For instance, a consumer may look at that 410-calorie burrito and think it's packed with healthy vegetables and chicken, when in fact it's just beans and a tortilla," Liu said. "The calorie range often doesn't reflect health but number of ingredients."
Their findings, "How Many Calories Are in My Burrito? Improving Consumers' Understanding of Energy (Calorie) Range Information," are published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
A provision of the ACA requires calorie counts to be listed at restaurants. For those establishments that offer customizable food -- like burritos and pizzas -- the ACA requires a calorie range.
Ubel, Liu and their co-authors did a series of four experiments testing consumers' ability to estimate calories in their food with the aid of a calorie range. Part of that work included surveying people outside of a Chipotle restaurant.
The researchers discovered that a calorie range improved estimates, but on its own didn't give consumers all of the information they needed.
But when the researchers added descriptions of ingredients to the high and low part of the range, the customers' estimates of the calories in the food dramatically improved. In the example of the burrito, consumers were told that the 410-calorie burrito consisted of black beans and the tortilla, while the 1,185-calorie burrito also included chicken, rice, corn salsa, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and lettuce.
"With this simple tweak, consumers would have a better idea of what they are eating," Ubel said. "Of course, they may still choose the most caloric food, but at least they'll know that's what they're doing."
Co-authors of the study were professor James Bettman of Duke's Fuqua School of Business and Ph.D. marketing student Arianna Uhalde of USC's Marshall School of Business.