Calorie Labeling In Action
The idea here is pretty simple: Chain restaurants would have to put calorie counts on their menus. If you want to order a quarter-pounder, you're going to know its caloric content. This is the sort of idea that will one day come to seem like the most natural thing in the world. Like with the long fight over nutritional labeling on store-bought foods, the controversy over menu labeling's passage will give way to a consensus over the importance of its presence. After all, in a world where we do a giant chunk of our eating at restaurants, it's important know how many calories different foods contain.
The question is whether it will also be an effective idea in changing consumer behavior. More on that in a moment. First, the anecdata: I went to Potbelly's for lunch today. I used to eat lunch at Potbelly's a lot. I do so rarely now. But my order is the same: Vegetarian on wheat with triple hot peppers, and a bag of Baked Lays. I'm having a bit of a bad day, though, so I made a rare addition: a warm, gooey, oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie.
All quite delicious. When I got back to the office, though, I decided to see what it added up to. First, I looked up the cookie. A solid 450 calories, with 19 grams of fat. Yikes. But what might have actually changed my purchase was knowing the content of my sandwich: According to the nutrition calculator, 525 calories.
The calories in the cookie weren't startling. But their calories relative to my sandwich proved a bit off-putting. I could pretty much have ordered a second sandwich for the caloric cost. Buying them without the information, it was easy enough to just consider them a side dish. As it happened, the cookie was more like a second lunch. I wouldn't have ordered a second lunch. Good to know.
You can imagine a lot of marginal changes like that after a menu labeling law goes into effect. Someone doesn't order the chips, or the cookie. They get a Big Mac rather than a Quarterpounder. It's not about making healthy choices. It's about making relatively healthier choices.
But would small changes in matter? They might. The following table comes from a Health Impact Assessment prepared by the County of Los Angeles on calorie labeling laws. It shows how much of the whole county's projected weight gain would be averted if calorie labeling got X percent of restaurant patrons to make average decisions that were Y calories smaller:
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