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Oct. 7 2009 - 12:37 pm | 50 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

City to Calorie Labeling: Drop Dead

A Big Mac hamburger and french fries are pictu...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

What would happen to eating habits if you took an entire city and made all the chain restaurants post calorie counts for every item on the menu?

How about: Nothing.

Or worse: People would consume slightly more calories.

That’s what may have happened here in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg’s health junta instituted the calorie labeling scheme last July. The idea is that more health information will nudge people to make healthier choices. If you see how unhealthy that Big Mac is, if you’re hit in the face with the huge calorie count, maybe you don’t buy it.

In principle, I’m open to relatively non-intrusive ideas like this — giving consumers more information — if the result is significant gains in terms of public health. As a libertarian, the intrusion bugs me. As a taxpayer, I’d like to see health-care costs brought down. But if the equation changes — if a nudge like this doesn’t work, or even backfires — then I’m more than a bit troubled.

So, what’s happened in New York? I don’t think it would be fair to say we have the whole picture yet. But the first major study on the effects of the labeling program is out… and the results don’t look good.

Researchers from NYU and Yale looked at patrons of four fast food chains (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken) in poor neighborhoods in New York City (which instituted labeling) and Newark (which didn’t institute labeling). They looked at receipts before and after labeling was instituted in New York and interviewed diners. The result? The bottom line was that there was no significant change in the number of calories reflected on people’s receipts after labeling was instituted — in fact, calorie consumption went up a little in New York.

Only about half of diners reported seeing the calorie counts. A little more than a quarter of those people said the counts affected their behavior. Of those people who said the counts affected their behavior, 9 out of 10 said it made them consume fewer calories.

The kicker, though: Even among the people who said they saw the labels, that the labels affected their choices, and that the labels made them purchase fewer calories, the receipts didn’t actually bear out any significant changes in calorie consumption. (The lesson, as usual: Self-reporting is pretty useless; we have zero self-awareness as a species.)

So, What Does It All Mean?

First off, the study has a few limitations:

1) It was conducted rather early in the program. Perhaps people will adjust slowly to the new labeling.

2) It was conducted at fast food restaurants. Meaning: It doesn’t deal with the question of whether the labeling is sending people to other restaurants, where the calorie counts aren’t posted. And, if it is, are they making better or worse food choices at these new establishments?

3) It dealt with the poor and minorities. Perhaps the labeling is working super-awesomely for rich white folks. (Of course, it’s not rich white folks who have an obesity problem, generally speaking.)

The most serious question is whether this backfire effect is real and significant or a statistical blip. Jonah Lehrer theorizes that maybe people, being naturally drawn to more calories, are actually using the calorie data to subconsciously seek out even more caloric food than they’d usually eat. If this is the case, and it proves to be robust over a number of studies, I think there would be a very serious case for repealing these calorie-posting regulations.

But can you actually see the Bloomberg administration doing that? One side effect of nannystatism is that meddling is as addictive as delicious cheese-filled calories. And admitting you were wrong is as repugnant as the idea of getting a salad instead of McNuggets.

Follow Neuroworld on Twitter: @ryansager


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  1. collapse expand

    I wasn’t aware that the usual people who frequent fast food restaurants were the type to care about calories. Can’t say that I blame them.

    • collapse expand

      No, the typical fast food consumer probably isn’t paying attention to his or health, one reason this might not ultimately be such a hot idea. Meanwhile, the one time I came across these numbers (guess I eat fast food a lot less than I used to) was at Nathan’s on Coney Island. Really shocking numbers. Ruined the whole experience. Definitely made me order less (though, can I trust my own self report?).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I wonder why they only studied poor neighborhoods?

  3. collapse expand

    Why label fast food items but not fancy-schmancy dinners at restaurants, which I’m sure have comparable (or more) fat and calories. Or wine and beer cals, for that matter…

  4. collapse expand

    Two other reasons come to mind: one, that this all happened as the economy tumbled and as the level of stress and angst and all around bad news increased, so did the urge to eat more for comfort than for hunger … and two, that New Yorkers just don’t like to be told what to do! ever!

  5. collapse expand

    When you look at this as a customer you’re seeing two numbers. Calories and price.

    I suspect the way many people order is related to an interplay between these variables.

  6. collapse expand

    One other issue that this study did not look at was the how often people ate at the restaurants.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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