Food tax could trim some people's calorie intake

Thu Feb 17, 2011 9:49pm EST
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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Would you still reach for those french fries if their price was jacked up by a substantial tax? A study says not everybody would.

Junk food taxes and greater openness with calorie information have both been advocated as ways to help consumers limit their calorie intake -- and, the hope is, to keep their weight in a healthy range.

In a computer-based experiment with nearly 200 U.S. college students, researchers led by Janneke Giesen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that the students generally "bought" fewer lunchtime calories when sugary, high-fat fare came with a tax of 25 percent or more.

"The most important finding of our study is that a tax of 25 percent or more on (high-calorie) foods makes nearly everyone buy fewer calories," Giesen told Reuters Health in an email.

The exception was when calorie-conscious eaters were given calorie information on their lunch options, in which case the tax did not seem to sway their opinions.

Policies to require restaurants and other vendors to be frank with calorie information have made gains recently -- most notably in New York, which in 2008 became the first U.S. city to mandate that fast food restaurants and coffee chains put calorie information on their menus. But just how effective such measures have been, or could be, is controversial.

The current study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that the effectiveness of junk food taxes might partly depend on whether calorie information is given or not, as well as the customer's own awareness of calories.

Giesen and colleagues had 178 U.S. college students choose a hypothetical lunch from a computer menu on three separate occasions. Each time, the prices for high-calorie items such as bacon cheeseburgers, brownies and chips, were increased -- first by 25 percent, then 50 percent.

About half the students were given calorie information.   Continued...