Whenever we visited my parents in upstate New York, my husband, daughter and I would grab lunch at the local Ruby Tuesday. We would feel morally superior ordering our turkey burgers, figuring turkey is a healthy option, lower in calories and better for you than the fast-food burgers people were sucking down at the McDonald's across the street.
Those burgers tasted so good that we used to joke that the secret ingredient was beef.
Then, in 2008, nutritional information began to appear on chain-restaurant menus. Our virtuous lean ground poultry? A whopping 832 calories (48 grams of fat); with add-ons such as cheese and condiments, the calorie count shot up to more than 1,100 calories (and 71 grams of fat); a few sips of a soft drink, one or two French fries dipped in mayo sauce and you'd easily rack up 2,000 calories or more.
That's an entire day's worth of calories, according to most health groups. By way of contrast, those low-rent Big Mac-ers were only ingesting 590 calories and 34 grams of heart-clogging fat.
Seeing the staggering fat-and-calorie counts conjured up images of narrowing arteries and middle-aged spread. It was enough to drive my husband and me out of Ruby Tuesday forever.
Plus, the thought of serving our daughter up to two days' worth of fat in one meal did not sit well with us, as parents. That's why the findings of a study published in today's issue of the International Journal of Obesity seem particularly puzzling to me.
The study, performed jointly by New York University's School of Medicine and Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, reviewed the choices made by 349 children and adolescents ages 1 to 17 from low-income communities in New York City and Newark, N.J., both before and after calorie labeling was introduced.
The youngsters who patronized four of the largest fast-food chains -- McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC -- didn't order any differently when the number of calories was posted in plain view. Although more than half of the adolescents admitted they noticed the calorie information, only 9 percent considered it when placing their order.
For the most part, it didn't seem to stop them from purchasing an average of 650 calories per visit and an even higher number of calories when they weren't accompanied by an adult.
After years of alarm about a national "obesity epidemic," Congress recently introduced a law as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requiring restaurant chains throughout the nation with 20 or more outlets to display the caloric content of their menu items. It goes further than many of the local and state laws; the calorie counts must be adjacent to the name of the menu item and printed in the same sized font.
But this latest study suggests that children, at least, don't pay much attention to those labels when making food choices. Other investigations have come to similar conclusions.
It surprised me that the findings aren't surprising to the researchers. "I don't think anyone really expected this kind of move would make a big difference in consumption practices," notes Rogan Kersh, associate professor of public policy and associate dean for academic affairs at Wagner and one of the study's authors.
"To combat obesity among adolescents, we're going to need a whole array of solutions," Kersh says.