Calorie Counts On Menus Don’t Seem To Influence Food Choices

Another government mandate that doesn't address a real problem.

hamburger

One of the lesser known provisions of the Affordable Care Care requires restaurant chains over a certain size to include calorie counts on their menus, a move that follows in the footsteps of cities like New York, which adopted limited versions of the mandate in the past. The logic behind the requirement, obviously, is that people are more likely to make healthier food choices if they have information in front of them showing the nutritional content, or lack thereof, of some of their favorite fast food items. Another city that adopted calorie count requirements before the PPACA became law was Philadelphia, an a recent study there finds that there’s little evidence that people are changing their minds based on this new information:

While the high calorie counts of artery-clogging fast foods are often printed right in front of our eyes, most people ignore them and go ahead and order their burgers and fries anyway, a new study finds.

New York University School of Medicine polled 2,000 Philadelphia fast food customers, aged 18 to 64, finding that few paid attention to calorie counts on menus, HeathDay reports.

Study author Brian Elbel, an assistant professor of population health and health policy, presented his findings Friday at the Obesity Society’s annual meeting in Atlanta. The research is published in the November issue of the journal Obesity.

The research team collected customer receipts at McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants and surveyed customers about how often they ate at fast food restaurants and whether or not they glanced at calorie information. Researchers surveyed customers both before and after February 2010, when the Philadelphia calorie-count label mandate went into effect.

The researchers also conducted a telephone survey of the city’s residents, to gauge how much people paid attention to calorie counts on restaurant menus.

Findings showed no difference in how often people ate at fast food restaurants or the amount of calories they consumed before and after the policy went into effect in Philadelphia, HealthDay reports.

These results are similar to the results of similar studies conducted in 2011 in New York City and Newark in 2011, which also found that the calorie count mandates in those cities had little impact on consumer choice. As I noted at the time, this isn’t all that surprising given how human nature work:

When you’re talking about large chain restaurants, it’s likely true that a menu labeling law doesn’t significantly increase the cost of doing business, or at least not to a degree that impacts the bottom line. These are large corporations, or the very least franchises supported by large corporations, and menu redesigns are a routine part of business. Adding in some information about nutritional content wouldn’t be difficult at all. In fact, some restaurant chains already provide information of that type on their menus because they’ve used it as a way to appeal to people who are on weight management programs like Weight Watchers.

Those calorie counts, of course, appeared on menus long before most city ordinances mandating calorie counts had ever existed, and well before the Affordable Care Act was passed. Indeed, they started showing up because restaurant chains began to recognize that there was a segment of the market that found this information helpful and that those people might be more likely to come to their restaurants if there was more nutritional information available on the menu. It was, in other words, a voluntary choice by the business in response to an anticipated market demand. In some cases, such as the partnership between Applebees and Weight Watchers that puts Weight Watchers “points” on the menu while also suggesting healthier alternatives, this seems to have been success for all involved. Additionally, though they don’t necessarily include calorie counts, several fast food chains have spent the last several years revamping their menus to provide healthier options to their customers, as well as a means of attracting new customers or those who might have stopped patronizing their stores due to perceptions about the healthiness of their menu. Again, this was a voluntary choice made by the business in response to, and in anticipation of, market demand rather than in response to an arbitrary government mandate. That, in the end, is how these things are supposed to work, and I have yet to see any rational argument in support of the idea that businesses ought to be forced to put calorie counts on their menus. If consumers want this in the restaurants they patronize, then business owners will respond accordingly. If it’s not important to them, then they won’t. The evidence from the study linked above, and those conducted in the past indicates pretty strongly that, at least in the fast food world, this information isn’t really important to the vast majority of customers. If that’s the case, then the mandate is just another pointless government regulation.

There are, of course, other problems with menu labeling laws, including one very practical one. How exactly, do you determine the calorie count of a prepared meal? Such meals aren’t like prepackaged items at supermarkets, where the nutritional content of what’s being sold is known beforehand thanks to testing. Especially outside the fast food world, menu items can vary daily depending on what a chef has prepared or what ingredients might be available. Even if all the calorie count on the menu is supposed to do is provide a general baseline, who gets to decide what an acceptable deviation from that baseline actually is, and what penalty would a restaurateur get for failing to stay within that baseline?

Finally, as I noted back in 2011, a regulation like this inevitably hurts small businesses far more than it does large chains like McDonalds or Pizza Hut:

[A] menu labeling law will inevitably hurt smaller businesses far more than it hurts large ones. As I noted above, the costs of adding nutritional information to a menu is relatively small for a large chain. That’s why you don’t hear the McDonald’s of the world objecting to labeling laws, they know they can comply with them at minimal cost. It’s their competitors in the smaller restaurants who will bear the brunt of the costs of the regulation, and who are also more likely to be the subject of disciplinary action by regulators for non-compliance with some hyper-technical aspect of the law.

The PPACA does blunt this effect somewhat by limiting the law to restaurant chains with 20 or more locations, but that also creates perverse incentives to the extent it means that a businessman thinking of expanding his small chain of restaurants might just think twice about opening that 20th location if it means he’ll have to undertake the expense of first determining the calorie content of all the items on his menu and then reprinting menus for all those locations with that information, a problem the owner of one small chain of Italian restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area made note of back in 2011.  Given how little impact these menu requirements apparently have on human behavior, it’s hard to see how the increased cost, both to businesses and the economy as a whole, is worth it unless there is a market demand for such information.

FILED UNDER: Food, Health, Health Care, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    With respect to the fast food joints, the whole effort seems to been moot before it started. If you eat at McDonald’s or Burger King every day (a more expensive proposition than buying real food and preparing it at home), then you probably don’t care about what you’re ingesting. If you eat at McDonald’s or Burger King once or twice a year, it doesn’t matter.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    How exactly, do you determine the calorie count of a prepared meal?

    There are a lot of really obvious problems with the conclusions you are drawing here…but if you can’t even figure out a basic procedure like determining a calorie count…the rest is beyond you for sure…

  3. grumpy realist says:

    Doug–you’ve left out one big juicy fat possibility: people might glance at the calorie charts, order what they want to eat—and then modify the rest of their eating habits the rest of the day to come in under their quota.

    The rest of your argument is standard warmed-over libertarian schlock, as usual. If your argument worked, banks would have never have put out all those mortgage products labeled AAA that had 24% failure rates, right? Because in the long run it wouldn’t have been good for business, right?

    I mean, even Alan Greenspan admitted he couldn’t have conceived of banks putting out dud products….

  4. beth says:

    I think if you’re opening a chain of more than 20 restaurants, you’re probably already standardizing menu items and ingredients.

    And as Grumpy pointed out above, maybe people modify behavior based on the calorie counts but not right at that moment. I recently found out a sandwich I like at a smaller chain restaurant has over 700 calories and I know I’ll only be eating it once in a blue moon from now on instead of once or twice a week. I found out that information by looking at the chain’s website – they don’t offer that info easily at their store.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    It has very definitely affected my choices at “casual” restaurants. I’m talking repeated, specific changes in choices I made. I could cite specific examples from Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen and PF Chang, the places my kids drag me. It has also influenced me to a lesser degree at places like In-N-Out.

    So the “research” is clearly mistaken in at least one case.

    And it costs no one anything. A restaurant that doesn’t do portion control is a restaurant about to go bankrupt. They know what goes into any given dish, and the calorie counts of the ingredients are readily available. So, a double b.s.

  6. george says:

    @C. Clavin:

    There are a lot of really obvious problems with the conclusions you are drawing here…but if you can’t even figure out a basic procedure like determining a calorie count…the rest is beyond you for sure…

    Not so sure its that simple. From what I’ve read figuring out the calorie content of foods is still pretty inexact unless you go the oxidization route (basically burn it and see how much heat it gives off), and it seems doubtful that number is the same as the calories a human body can pull out of the same food (ie burning achieves complete oxidization, the body doesn’t). The only nutritionist I’ve heard talk about it said a few years ago that the numbers were still very much ball park figures.

    Of course, ball park could be fine for most folks, who aren’t exactly going to three decimals of accuracy in calorie balancing.

    I’m influenced by calorie numbers myself – I’ve put bags of chips back on the shelfs after figuring out a big bag is a third of my calorie use (approximate of course) for a day. Yikes, snacking is one thing, but giving up a real meal for a bag of chips just isn’t on.

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    I try to eat healthy and don’t eat out much but when I go out for a juicy burger I don’t look at the calorie counts. I also don’t go to a fast food place but to a local dinner that has the best burgers on earth.

  8. john personna says:

    As I said in that old thread, I suspect there are all kinds of things this study cannot show. After learning how big lunch really was, how many had a light dinner?

    This new study doesn’t answer such questions, does it?

    If I know I’m going for a big meal I might just continue on, past the 2000 calorie warning, but I’ll probably try to be good in the following days.

  9. john personna says:

    Of course, on the flip side, your bathroom scale (and mirror) probably tell you all you need to know about what to eat tomorrow.

  10. ernieyeball says:

    Again, this was a voluntary choice made by the business in response to, and in anticipation of, market demand rather than in response to an arbitrary government mandate.

    I suspect that those promoting these arbitrary government mandates believe that the rest of us are just too stupid to make these decisions for ourselves.

    If you eat at McDonald’s or Burger King every day…If you eat at McDonald’s or Burger King once or twice a year,..

    Just guessing but I gotta’ wonder if much of American consumer behavior falls somewhere closer to the middle of this spectrum rather than at the extremes.

  11. KM says:

    *sigh* I gotta tell you, having worked in a grocery store’s prepared food section, NO ONE READS ANYTHING ON FOOD. They may glance or point but no one bothers to really read them for things like ingredients, prices or even its damn name! You can put the information at eye level, in bright eye-catching colors and 36 font – no good. Statistically, you have about 7 seconds to get someone’s attention before a decision is made – reading has little to nothing to do with it. They want what looks delicious, period. It’s a rare breed that checks and its usually since they’re on a diet or are allergic (and even then, its iffy).

    Useful information? Absolutely! Its something you should know for your health.
    Necessary information? Eh, define necessary.
    Used to make decisions on if they will eat that? Hell no!
    Does it look/sound tasty? They’ll take two, damn their arteries! Full fries ahead!

    This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the phenomenon of smokers not reading the warnings on the labels (or reading them and not giving a crap).

  12. C. Clavin says:

    On a very basic level…a Libertarian arguing for a less informed public strikes me as pretty f’ing schizophrenic. A less informed public is a more compliant public. Is that really a Libertarian ideal? A compliant public?

  13. C. Clavin says:

    @KM:

    NO ONE READS ANYTHING ON FOOD.

    Well I do…as do several others who have commented above.
    So apparently that word…NO ONE…doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @george: Yikes, snacking is one thing, but giving up a real meal for a bag of chips just isn’t on.

    Obviously you just don’t know what’s good.

  15. john personna says:

    A reminder that this is a national budget issue:

    Obesity, Not Old People, Is Making Healthcare Expensive

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @john personna:
    Hmmm…so is shrinking Government.
    I think there’s a trend here…….

  17. Rob in CT says:

    I think it’s fair to point out data showing that in the aggregate, what studies we have indicate that people don’t alter their (eating out) choices due to calorie counts/other nutritional info. But I *do*, and I think requiring businesses to provide information to consumers is a perfectly legitimate regulatory measure. So what’s the problem?

    People are being given information they can use to be a bit healthier. They can take it or leave it.

  18. Rob in CT says:

    @KM:

    Woah. I read the nutritional info on everything I buy at the supermarket…

  19. john personna says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I think there is an argument that big chain restaurants, who less have chefs than development labs, can produce calorie counts at minimal costs, and should. The production staff aren’t allowed creativity anyhow, so just emulsify a full plate and send it to the lab as you also produce the preparation manual.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of dishes that I want to see varied, with what is fresh and what is available.

    I don’t want to see those blocked by a fixed-menu requirement.

  20. David M says:

    I view the nutritional listings as similar to listing prices or ingredients. Pretty basic knowledge that you can use or ignore, but not having it at all is a big deal.

    If you don’t want it, you can ignore it, no impact at all.

    If you want it, but don’t have it, there’s really no recourse.

  21. steve s says:

    Some of us make decisions based on calorie counts, sat fat, fiber, and sugar counts.

  22. Moosebreath says:

    “How exactly, do you determine the calorie count of a prepared meal? Such meals aren’t like prepackaged items at supermarkets, where the nutritional content of what’s being sold is known beforehand thanks to testing.”

    Clearly you have no idea how chain restaurants (and the calorie disclosures generally only apply to chain restaurants) work. Everything about the food served is controlled by the franchisee, who generally the restaurant needs to purchse all their food from. The ingredients are provided to the restaurant in prepackaged form, so that every McDonald’s Big Mac has exactly the same amount of meat, the exact same size rolls, the exact same quantity of “special sauce”, etc. If the franchisee tried to vary it, the franchisor would be on them to conform immediately.

  23. al-Ameda says:

    The evidence from the study linked above, and those conducted in the past indicates pretty strongly that, at least in the fast food world, this information isn’t really important to the vast majority of customers. If that’s the case, then the mandate is just another pointless government regulation.

    I disagree that the utility and value of caloric information is not important to those consumers who choose to ignore such health information. It certainly is potentially important, it is their prerogative to ignore it, however that is not enough to convince me that we should not make that information available on menus.

    Unless the expense to assess the offerings, count the calories, and print it on menus is prohibitively high, I can see no harm in providing calorie counts on the menu. Especially in view of the fact that over 30% of Americans are, by most measures, obese. This information has important value to consumers, whether they choose to avail themselves of it is another matter.

    How many people read labels on food products at markets and grocery stores? Not only are ingredients identified, but percentages of vitamins and fats, as well as calories per portion are there too. We take it for granted now, yet I’m sure that millions of people ignore labeling information every day – should that point us toward making this information optionally available? I don’t think so.

  24. Pinky says:

    You know that there are people who look at nutritional information to get “their money’s worth”, as many calories as they can for the dollar?

  25. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    You know that there are people who look at nutritional information to get “their money’s worth”, as many calories as they can for the dollar?

    You are right about that.
    A lot of people believe that they aren’t getting good value for their dollar unless they get single portions that are sufficient to feed 2 or 3 people.

    I say provide the caloric information and let the buyer be aware.

  26. JKB says:

    @ernieyeball: I suspect that those promoting these arbitrary government mandates believe that the rest of us are just too stupid to make these decisions for ourselves.

    And they derive at that belief because they are too stupid to make these decisions. Below is a post from 2009 by Ezra Klein. Someone who thinks a dish made with eggs, pasta, bacon and sometimes cream (Carbonara) is a “healthy” choice shouldn’t be allowed eat out much less comment on what others should have presented to them. Just one look at carbonara with a heavy egg based sauce clinging to ribbons of pasta should be enough to know it isn’t low or moderate calorie. And the problem is not with the eggs or bacon or cream but rather the pasta.

    A lot, as it turns out. On first glance, I would have figure the salmon for the lightest entree, followed by the chicken piccata, the carbonara, and the crispy beef. Not so. The salmon weighs in at 1,673 calories — which is to say, a bit more than 75 percent of the food an adult male should eat in a day. The piccata is a comparably slim 1,385 calories. The crispy beef is 1,528 calories. And the carbonara? 2,191. The answer might be that someone looking for a healthful meal shouldn’t go to the Cheesecake Factory. But insofar as you’re already there, or your family wants to go there, making a good decision isn’t a particularly straightforward proposition.

  27. Kari Q says:

    Providing consumers with basic information like this is always a positive. Whether or not the impact can be measured doesn’t seem to me to be the standard I would use. Is this an excessive burden to the chain stores required to provide the information? No. Do some consumers find the information valuable? Yes. That makes it a worthwhile mandate.

    As others have said, I use this information myself. In fact, I avoid places that don’t have calorie counts readily posted. Eating at fast food places a couple of times a week, as I do (my husband likes burgers), I find the information invaluable in helping me maintain my 45-pound weight loss. As long as the calorie information is provided, I can almost always find something that fits into my diet.

  28. Kari Q says:

    @JKB:

    Pasta, by the way, can be very low in calories if it is served with a marinara sauce. Plus, a pasta dish is usually quite easy to break into two or more meals, either dividing between two people or saving the leftovers for later. That alone makes pasta often my preferred choice in dining out particularly when I can get whole wheat pasta.

    I guess I just don’t understand why some are objecting to the idea of providing information. Do you prefer ignorance to knowledge as a general thing? Or is it just food related?

  29. rodney dill says:

    @Pinky: you beat me to it.

  30. Tyrell says:

    I would think that most people can figure and know the foods that have high calories and fat. They also know that full service restaurants will have salads and at least some healthy choices. Often people go out to eat to splurge and take a brief break from some sort of diet. Often overlooked is the important sodium counts. The best way to get sodium amount down is to forget the salt shaker and order foods unsalted. I am surprised at the people I see pouring salt on fries, which have already been salted.
    I am surprised that the AHA has a regulation like that. I wonder what else is in there that would surprise and shock people? Of course, some members of Congress still may not have read the entire contents even yet. We know of at least one that didn’t read it before they voted for it. I am not going to name names.

  31. Kari Q says:

    @Tyrell:

    I would think that most people can figure and know the foods that have high calories and fat. They also know that full service restaurants will have salads and at least some healthy choices.

    You would be surprised. It’s one of the things that I learned when I started paying attention to calorie information: I’m very bad at figuring out what actually is low in calorie. (Which was they actual point of what Klein was saying, by the way. He never made the argument that he thought carbonara would be healthy).

    Say you’re at California Pizza Kitchen and decide you want to order a salad. Hey, this sounds good: Thai Crunch Salad with Fresh Avocado. Shredded carrots, edamame, cabbage, fresh avocado, that sounds nutritious. Must be good for you. It’s also 1,400 calories. Even the Field Greens salad is 810 calories.

    Or maybe you’re at Applebee’s and decide to order the grilled shrimp and spinach salad. That sounds pretty light. It’s 1090 calories. Even without the dressing (and who gets salad with no dressing?) it’s over 700 calories.

    Knowing the calorie value of what you order is trickier than it appears.

  32. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:

    I would think that most people can figure and know the foods that have high calories and fat.

    It’s not always that simple.
    And in any case…better informed is better informed.

  33. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: (raises hand in air) I regularly use the ingredient labels on Whole Foods’s deli stuff. I peel them off and paste them on 3 x 5 cards. If you’ve had enough cooking experience, a list of the ingredients is a recipe right there. So I can then recreate the dish at a much lower cost.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. The other use I find I use fast-food labels for is how many grams of protein are available.

  35. Pinky says:

    @JKB:

    I would have figure the salmon for the lightest entree, followed by the chicken piccata, the carbonara, and the crispy beef.

    Not as dumb as it sounds. He listed four entrees earlier in the article, then ranked them by expected calorie count. He wasn’t saying that he thought any of these were the lightest things on the menu.

  36. wr says:

    How fascinating that the “conservatives” here are all arguing in favor of enforced ignorance.

    I wonder what that means.

  37. Gromitt Gunn says:

    So, to sum up libertarian “logic” on commercial contracting:

    “Free markets are best, and so consumers shouldn’t have limitations on what they are allowed to buy. It should be up to the consumer to do their research before they enter into a voluntary contract, and they should then live with the results. However, there should also be no requirements for businesses to disclose the information that consumers require in order to make an informed decision prior to entering into a contract to purchase a good. So if you die from mercury poisoning in your salmon, well f*ck you for not doing the research you couldn’t do in the first place. Now get back on the ground and bare your neck so your corporate overlords can maximize the sole of their jackbooted freedom all over you.”

  38. ernieyeball says:

    @wr: enforced ignorance.

    Yes. I see they are burning all the books at the local library today.
    When they are done they will hack the internet so nothing is left but Paul and Jan Crouch!

    http://anxietyny.tripod.com/crouches.jpg

  39. Tyrell says:

    @Kari Q: Thanks for the reply. I don’t eat out much. I do watch sodium levels first, fats second, and certain ingredients third. No steak, just sea food.
    My problem is trying to keep weight on. I have to make an effort to get in a certain amount of calories daily. Most people tell me to hush up when I tell them that. I can eat milk shakes all day and not gain. Gaining weight can be hard if you are trying to eat healthy also.

  40. Rafer Janders says:

    @Kari Q:

    Do you prefer ignorance to knowledge as a general thing?

    Remember, we’re talking about Republicans.

  41. john personna says:

    @Pinky:

    Kidding? How many today need the calorie count more than the protein grams?

  42. bill says:

    @wr: “personal responsibility” is more like it, the gov’t can do it wants about this stuff but they just encourage it by dumbing down our youth. don’t get me started on the ‘food stamp nation” stuff either- utter nonsense.

  43. john personna says:

    @Tyrell:

    If you are young and/or doing a lot of daily exercise, that’s fine.

    But the nation would not be trending obese if they too were in such happy straights.

    (If you are not young or active, see a doctor.)

  44. john personna says:

    @bill:

    Study out last week showed that food stamp recipients are (a bit) less fat than non.

  45. john personna says:

    (Overall the conservative comments show poor understanding of science, nutrition, household budgeting, or any recognition at all of a obesity or fitness problem

    News today, on a national average, british kids cannot run as fast as their parents.)

  46. Hal 10000 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Doug–you’ve left out one big juicy fat possibility: people might glance at the calorie charts, order what they want to eat—and then modify the rest of their eating habits the rest of the day to come in under their quota.

    The rest of your argument is standard warmed-over libertarian schlock, as usual. If your argument worked, banks would have never have put out all those mortgage products labeled AAA that had 24% failure rates, right? Because in the long run it wouldn’t have been good for business, right?

    1) First, the study found that most of them simply ignore the information. Second, there is no evidence of offsetting behavior. Everyone knows that “I’ll make up for this fried chicken by hitting the gym later or eating a salad” never works out.

    2) Your analogy isn’t really appropriate. The risk of any financial product is difficult to measure at best (which is why the investment banks lost trillions). No one needs calorie counts to know that a cheeseburger isn’t good for them. Calorie counts aren’t about fighting obesity; they’re about looking like you’re fighting obesity. And if you can impose a burden on McDonald’s competition into the bargain, well, that’s just low-calorie gravy.

  47. Hal 10000 says:

    To be clear: I’m not opposed to businesses putting calorie counts on menus and think they should. Let’s just not pretend this is a public health measure.

  48. Moosebreath says:

    @Kari Q:

    “I guess I just don’t understand why some are objecting to the idea of providing information. Do you prefer ignorance to knowledge as a general thing? Or is it just food related?”

    No, it’s that it imposes an obligation on the 1% and provides a benefit to the 99%. If it imposed an obligation on the 99% and provided a benefit to the 1%, every libertarian I’ve ever met would be all for it.

  49. john personna says:

    @Hal 10000:

    As I said in the old thread, a study that only shows same meal effects is just mute on follow on effects.

    When they say “no effect,” they do not follow people home and look at their dinner, nor see if breakfast was skipped after a big day.

  50. An Interested Party says:

    don’t get me started on the ‘food stamp nation” stuff either- utter nonsense.

    Indeed…referring to our country in that way is quite foolish…

  51. James Pearce says:

    Doug on 11-20:

    Given how little impact these menu requirements apparently have on human behavior, it’s hard to see how the increased cost, both to businesses and the economy as a whole, is worth it unless there is a market demand for such information.

    Doug on Nov 11:

    Rather than banning these products [trans fats], it strikes me that the best alternative would be information. Give consumers the information they need to make informed decisions, and then let them make those decisions themselves.

    As I noted then, there’s just as much knee-jerk resistance to “more information” as there is to bans and for the same reason: The government is bad, man, bad I tell you.

  52. Hal 10000 says:

    @john personna:

    But there is no evidence *for* a substituting effect. You’re defending a policy based on supposition and a rather counter-intuitive one at that. Even if there were such an effect, only 10% of the population would even be eligible for it, that being the percent that even pay attention to calorie labeling. So even if it exists, you are talking about a very tiny percentage of the population, likely less than 1%.

    In any case, this was not how this was sold to us. We were told that it would help people make healthier choices at restaurants. That clearly isn’t happening. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of speculation about second-order effects.

  53. James Pearce says:

    @Hal 10000:

    Even if there were such an effect, only 10% of the population would even be eligible for it, that being the percent that even pay attention to calorie labeling. So even if it exists, you are talking about a very tiny percentage of the population, likely less than 1%.

    How do you know that “the percent that even pay attention to calorie labeling” equals 10%? Sounds like either a guess (if I’m nice) or a totally made up statistic (if I’m “being real”), but if you have done the due diligence, you can always show your work.

    I think all opponents of these efforts should consider a few things. A) Efforts to promote healthier eating could be more intrusive. B) Calorie counts are not so onerous as to impede or harm anyone’s business, certainly no more onerous than routine health inspections or building codes. As with those (already common and accepted) things, the costs of compliance are borne by the business itself. This is not controversial. It’s SOP.

    And finally, C) If effectiveness is your primary concern, please refer to point A.

  54. Kari Q says:

    @Hal 10000:

    If 10% of customers pay attention to calorie counts, then that’s 10% that are better informed and capable of making better choices.

  55. Kari Q says:

    @Hal 10000:

    Even if there were such an effect, only 10% of the population would even be eligible for it, that being the percent that even pay attention to calorie labeling.

    Actually that’s not what the study said. According to the study’s author: “Forty percent of the sample saw it and about 10 percent [overall] said they used it and reported to us that they purchased fewer calories,”

    Frankly, given the complexity of issues involving nutrition, weight, obesity, and diet, it’s difficult to make a change that has more than a small impact at the margins. If 10% of people really are making better choices based on calorie counts as displayed, that’s rather encouraging. Most of the restaurants I know tend to hide the information, or print it so small that it’s almost impossible to read. Yet 10% of people are still using it. Honestly, that’s not bad.

  56. Tyrell says:

    @john personna: I exercise quite a lot. My weight stays very steady – in the 170’s range.

  57. john personna says:

    @Hal 10000:

    I’m arguing both from experience and common sense. If I see that an Islands burger is 1200 calories, I *have* followed through and eaten it … but I come to think of it haven’t been back to Islands.

    This is actually why the restaurants oppose the labeling, and not because it might make someone switch to chicken at the last minute.

    (That “they told you the law was for X” is a non-argument.)

  58. john personna says:

    Besides, what else are we going to do? More than just Britain:

    Kids Are Less Fit Today Than You Were Back Then

    The conservatives don’t want a “mommy state” … but when you can’t mange your own health, maybe you need a mommy.

  59. john personna says:

    @Tyrell:

    Excellent.

  60. bill says:

    @john personna: was that based on recent numbers compared to the earlier part of the decade? still, less fat is still fat! the fattest nation on earth and we need to dole out food stamps in record numbers?!

    @An Interested Party: see above! enabling in action.

  61. grumpy realist says:

    @Hal 10000: You’ve already got three people on this thread alone state that they use the calorie counts to modify their behavior/eating habits and all you can say is “There is no evidence that…”???

    I realize that data is not the plural of anecdote, but when a firm statement is made that there is NO evidence that X occurs and you have 3 instances of X being reported, methinks said firm statement has pretty wobbly foundations.

  62. john personna says:

    @bill:

    No, it was a comparison between current receivers of food stamps, and non-receivers:

    Based on a study of 772 low-income families from a national sample, food insecure girls participating in the school lunch, school breakfast, or SNAP programs (or all three programs combined) have a lower risk of overweight compared to food insecure girls from non-participating households.

  63. C. Clavin says:

    @bill:
    Are you aware that Walmart and McDonalds and others can’t exist if they don’t pay their employees below poverty wages and force them onto food-stamps and other public assistance?
    No…I didn’t think so.

  64. john personna says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Walmart and McDonalds are public-private partnerships. Functionally.

  65. Tony W says:

    @C. Clavin: it’s about freedom for the rich ownership class, not you and me

  66. Rob in CT says:

    By paying attention to carbs (home cooking, not eating out, which we very rarely do) plus basically eliminating snacking (on carby things like triscuits), I dropped 18lbs (and counting). This without upending my entire lifestyle. Labeling requirements on food (granted, here I’m talking about supermarket stuff) is very useful to me. With a restaurant, if I go in and see the whole menu larded down with crazily caloric/carby things I think twice about going there again. Basically, the calculation becomes “is this meal tasty enough to justify the unhealthiness of it?” Sometimes the answer can be yes, but for a lot of chain restaurants my answer’s gonna be no. Which, of course, they don’t like. Boo effing hoo.

    I find it fascinating that people who typically posture as libertarian or libertarian-leaning on econ are defending imperfect information in the marketplace. Rational consumers need info, or free markets don’t work properly. This is pretty basic stuff. You actually understand the underpinnings of your ideologically concenial economic theory, right? RIGHT?

  67. C. Clavin says:

    @john personna:
    Yes…the beauty of the magical free market we always hear about.
    Let’s shrink Government…as long as companies like Walmart still get their corporate welfare.

  68. john personna says:

    @C. Clavin:

    You can look at it either way. It is both corporate and individual welfare.

    For me the interesting thing is that a Walmart employee receiving poverty benefits looks a lot like some sort of “minimum national income scheme.”

    In that, government provides part of the maintenance low productivity workers and companies hire them at low rates, matched to their low productivity.

    It might sound harsh at first sight to put “greeting” and “shelve stocking” down as low productivity, but they are. Compare to Costco, which sticks to pallets, pays their workers more, but has far fewer workers.

  69. Rob in CT says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Goddamnit. Congenial, not concenial. I’m not firing on all cylinders yet, apparently.

    John Persona,

    You can look at it either way. It is both corporate and individual welfare.

    For me the interesting thing is that a Walmart employee receiving poverty benefits looks a lot like some sort of “minimum national income scheme.”

    Sure. I’m pretty sure the EITC grew out of Milton Friedman’s reverse income tax idea. The EITC, after all, was a GOP idea, as an alternative to more direct welfare.

    As for it being both private and corporate welfare, certainly it’s hard to untangle who is benefitting, just like people argue over who “really” pays the employer side of FICA.

  70. C. Clavin says:

    @john personna:
    Yes…you are right…corporate and individual.
    There is a lot of rumbling about a national minimum income…I don’t see it ever happening because one party is seemingly unable to accept very basic economic facts and realities. If we were to have a fact-based and rational conversation…maybe.

  71. john personna says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Seems to me that the two extremes are (1) a national minimum income, or (2) a high minimum wage. Either one would have interesting effects on business strategy.

    Whether or not they really want #1 to come to pass, conservatives tend to argue from that position. Liberals tend to prefer #2.

    We’ll probably continue with some muddle of both solutions.

  72. grumpy realist says:

    @john personna: Which is interesting because Walmart at present has a lack-of-stock-on-shelves problem because they have too few workers.

    I don’t shop at Walmart because a) I detest the greed of their owners b) can’t find anything there of any decent quality. Unless you’re a parent trying to clothe a small kid (they grow out of their clothes quicker than scat), you really do need to worry about how long stuff will last. And Walmart stuff is cheap crap from China that will barely make it through one washing. It’s really being penny-wise, pound-foolish to buy that stuff.

    Which is why the most financially efficient clothes-shopping, in my opinion, is to find a good quality brand and then look for it used or on sale. (I end up doing most of my shopping on Ebay for obvious reasons.)

  73. john personna says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I admit that I go to Walmart when I want cheap crap from China. (Which isn’t a very big fraction of my spending. Most is in fact health insurance 😉

    [ok, not most. Single biggest line item.]

  74. KM says:

    @grumpy realist, @C. Clavin:

    I’m finding it interesting that everyone is so quick to jump to dismiss or mitigate the findings. I merely pointed out that, having worked in the field for a good number of years, provided calorie count information was not a factor. A majority of my customers would point and say “gimme pasta” when I had 10 variations in front of them. Baked Potato Salad with sour cream, cheddar and bacon sold out faster then Brussels sprouts or roasted vegetables ever did.

    Perhaps we are a particular health-conscious bunch here at OTB. That’s not what I saw with the customers on a daily basis and not what ultimately the results found. Again, I’m totally in favor of the data since I believe information is power and the average citizen should know more about their world in order to live a better life. However you can’t make people choose based on beneficial data you give them – they have the right and the ability to see/hear and ignore it to continue on with their lives. Many of them appear to do so regularly.

    I’m curious, does anyone else here have recent hands-on food service experience that might be different from mine?

  75. C. Clavin says:

    @KM:
    I think we both agree that more information is better than less…that was my point.
    I’m sure you are right…the majority of people don’t pay attention…but the majority of people is never a really good indicator of anything.
    Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian are symptoms of appealing to the “majority of people”.

  76. john personna says:

    @KM:

    I think I’m pretty well read on the subject. The current science seems to be that calories are calories, but human behavior in the wild is strange. You can put a prisoner (or volunteer) on a fixed diet either low calorie, or low fat, or low carb, and all result in weight loss.

    When people in the population do diets of all sorts (from vegan to paleo) they are eating intentionally. They generally do better than non-intentional eaters.

    I’m sure, if you work in modern food service, you have met vegans and paleo eaters, and know that they have demands.

    So .. what are you really saying, that you think most visitors to restaurant X are not eating intentionally? Or just not intentionally on that visit?

  77. Pinky says:

    @KM:

    Perhaps we are a particular health-conscious bunch here at OTB.

    And perhaps we’re all 400 lbs. and covered in Dorito dust typing about how healthy we are.

  78. john personna says:

    I am making Spaghetti aglio e olio, as I read this thread. YMMV.

  79. KM says:

    @john personna:

    So .. what are you really saying, that you think most visitors to restaurant X are not eating intentionally? Or just not intentionally on that visit?

    Full disclosure – I can’t speak for restaurants per se as my area was in a grocery store’s prepared foods area – something like a buffet/ a la carte where you select what you want for your 3-part meal from the 30+ choices available. Every item had name, ingredients, allergens, calorie count and price listed clear on individual placards beneath the product. Due to its nature, my experience might be slightly different then a more limited menu with pictures rather then the real food right there in front of you. But here goes….

    I would say 10% or less are intentionally eating and you can pick them out by the questions they ask or if they study the signage (“what type of oil is this?” “does this have nuts?”). For the vast, vast majority there was little to no thought nor pause for their order. Lasagna with a double helping of Mac n’Cheese is a popular choice – a starch filled redundancy and huge calorie count. Healthy choices seem to be more accidental – the vegetables looked particularly good today or more likely, the mac salad looked tired. Deep fried honey-brined chicken did better then skinless grilled on a daily basis despite about 200+ calories difference.

    I would stand by the assertion that the number of calories is less important to the average eater then the presentation of the item in question. Intentional-eating/dieting requires forethought, deliberation and consistency. A diet doesn’t do much good if you keep cheating on it. The whole “I’ll make up for it later” conceit is one of the reasons dieters fail; once you do that, you tend to keep doing that. That being said, they think its for just that visit but in practice it turns out to be a pattern they can’t break.

  80. KM says:

    @john personna:

    Spaghetti aglio e olio,

    Mmmm… I’m having Raspberry Passonfruit with Chia to drink and dried mango for snack. Waiting on a client or it’s be something more substantial.

  81. Rob in CT says:

    I certainly won’t argue that most people are going to use the information well. Some people will. Others will not. However, I think it’s good to provide the information to consumers.

    I didn’t start “eating intentionally” as JP puts it until quite recently, when I hit a weight that freaked me out. Information helps me. Of course, generally the best thing I can do is not eat out at all. I do so very infrequently, which is why the thing I ate the last time I was out (a bacon cheeseburger & fries) wasn’t a problem. But we seem to be talking about more than just info on chain restaurant menus. We’re talking supermarket items now, and hell, I paid attention to the ingredients & nutritional info even before I started trying to lose weight (just generally trying to eat decent stuff, even though I was eating too much of it).

    So, let us stipulate that making restaurants provide nutritional information will not, in and of itself, result in a noticeable reduction in America’s obesity problem. I think the policy is justifiable anyway.

  82. Kari Q says:

    @bill:

    the fattest nation on earth and we need to dole out food stamps in record numbers?!

    Your argument appears to be “lots of people are obese, therefore others should be deprived of access to food.” I guess to even things out?

    @KM:

    As Rob in CT said, I have no doubt that what you are saying is true. I’m quite certain that a majority of people give no thought to the caloric or nutritional content of what they buy. They don’t know and don’t care. Hence my thought that if 10% of customers are using the information, that’s not a bad percentage.

  83. An Interested Party says:

    the fattest nation on earth and we need to dole out food stamps in record numbers?!

    Hey idiot, we had this little crash awhile back that caused a major recession that cost a lot of people their jobs…maybe you haven’t heard of it? Perhaps rather than receiving food stamps, all those people who struggle to afford food should just go out and find a fat person to eat…

  84. wr says:

    @Pinky: “And perhaps we’re all 400 lbs. and covered in Dorito dust typing about how healthy we are. ”

    Or dogs. We could all be dogs.