Can Menu Labeling Make Us Healthier, Cheaper, Better?
Sen.Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro(D-Conn.) are reintroducing the aptly-named MEAL Act. "MEAL" stands -- somewhat awkwardly -- for Menu Education And Labeling. That is to say, it stands for calorie counts. Right there on the menu. Next to your food. So you know. Harkin and DeLauro want to see restaurants with more than 20 locations displaying the total calories, sodium, saturated and trans fats, and carbohydrates of each dish right next to its name on the menu. Or, as the case may be, the menu board.
This isn't the first time Harkin and DeLauro have tested this legislation. It's the third. But as The Post's Jane Black makes note of, the politics might be different this time around. Health reform is in the works. And the administration is desperately looking for ways to cut costs without denying care. One way to do that is to make people healthier so they need less care. And one way to do that is to avert the obesity epidemic.
The theory here is simple. Ignorance, as my Libertarian friends claim, might be bliss. But it also makes you fat. It's not simply that consumers don't know how many calories are in restaurant meals. It's that repeated studies show they systematically underestimate how many calories are in restaurant meals. And they underestimate by more calories as meals grow larger. We're better, in other words, at assessing the calorie load of a simple cheeseburger than an Awesome Blossom. And it's not that we're stupid. Studies show that even nutritionists tend to lowball their estimates at fast food restaurants, coming in 200 to 600 calories below the mark.
Consumers are, predictably, even worse. One study found that we tend to lowball unhealthy items by 632 calories. Certain foods really throw us off: The average respondent underestimated cheese fries with ranch dressing by more than 2,000 calories. And relative calorie counts are even harder. Fact of the day: A small milkshake at McDonald's has more calories than a Big Mac. And tuna salad sandwiches? Way worse than roast beef.
Hence: Menu labeling. The key insight here is that small changes in behavior can have large impacts on outcomes. A Health Impact Assessment (pdf) prepared for the city of Los Angeles estimated that if calorie labeling convinced a mere 10 percent of large-chain patrons to order meals that were merely 100 calories lighter, then menu labeling "would avert 38.9% of the 6.75 million pound average annual weight gain in the county population aged 5 years and older." Get 20 percent to reduce their meals by 75 calories? You've knocked out 58.3 percent of the projected 6.75 million pounds. That's huge.
And unlike a Twinkie, it actually gets better with age. The presence of calorie counts gives restaurants an incentive to reformulate their meals so they contain -- you guessed it -- fewer calories. Menu labeling, in other words, makes menus lighter, as restaurants respond to the change in consumer behavior. Think how trans fats dropped out of every packaged food as soon as they had to be disclosed. And all that with a little label.
Image used under a CC license from Flickr user Marshall Astor.
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