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Menu Labeling a Bust?


I've been a big proponent of affixing calorie counts to menus. There's substantial evidence suggesting that people wildly underestimate the calorie content of dishes at restaurants, and have a lot of trouble reliably guessing whether one dish is lighter than another dish. There's also evidence that people want to eat better than they do. It seemed like the sort of situation where information could result in action.

The first big study out of New York City, however, suggests that menu labeling has been a bit of a bust in changing ordering habits at fast food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods. The researchers identified 14 outlets and, using Newark (where there's no calorie labeling) as a control group, conducted interviews and receipt checks to see how ordering patterns changed. The answer? They didn't. If anything, the calories per order went up a smidge.


If you're looking for good news, Kevin Drum spots the sole wisp of it: People under 35 who noticed the calorie counts did cut back a bit. That's a far cry from the high hopes some held out for calorie labeling. I could make a couple of bank shot arguments here (it's possible higher-income people will cut back more, leading chain restaurants to reformulate their offerings to secure their business, leading to calorie reductions across the customer base), but I don't think they make a lot of sense. You could also see it going in the other direction: people could gravitate toward higher-calorie items on the grounds that they'll prove more satisfying, and represent a better deal.

I'm still a supporter of calorie labeling on the simple grounds that people should have this information, no matter how they choose to use it. But so far, the evidence suggests that it's not going to make a dent in obesity rates.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Ou.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 8, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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I think fast food ordering habits are pretty ingrained and few people even look at the menu. Any changes in behavior will be long-term.

Posted by: JEinATL | October 8, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Ah, what the heck, eh? Klein is willing to spend other people's money in all sorts of frivolous policy pursuits, without a clue in the world.

Posted by: msoja | October 8, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Hah! Radley Balko saw this post coming a mile away

Posted by: ab13 | October 8, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I think that fast food behaviors in low income neighborhoods is the wrong place to look to see if the policy has had a positive impact. Yes, we would like to change those behaviors, but as JEinATL mentioned, those habits may be ingrained and immovable for a variety of reasons. I would suggest that looking to see if behaviors changed at non-fast food eateries would be a better place to measure the impact. I think it might. I just paged through a book called "Eat This, Don't Eat That" which goes through major chains and shows some shocking differences in calories and fat count on their menus....and in foods you would not expect. That kind of information would change habits.

Posted by: scott1959 | October 8, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

From what I hear, the city is still working on its own (much more comprehensive) evaluation of calorie labelling. I've also heard two methodoligical criticisms of the recently announced study. First, the study was conducted shortly after the calorie labeling took effect, and there is evidence that calorie labeling requires repeated exposure to produce significant behavioral change. Second, the City coupled calorie labeling with an aggressive educational campaign in the target neighborhoods, implemented after this study concluded. This intervention was designed to educate people on recommended calorie ranges; prior studies suggest many people lack this knowledge. Calorie labeling may have a much greater impact in these populations when coupled with the education initiatives.

Posted by: mjp8 | October 8, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Well the article itself gives a link to those graphs with error bars - and it's really not cool that they don't come with error bars to begin with - but the link doesn't work (it's supposed to be

Anyway, the report notes that those decreases among under 35s are _non-significant_ which means they're not really there, it's probably just statistical noise. That's why graphs should always have error bars - so you can see when decreases are _real_ or _not_ (ie, here).

Posted by: goinupnup | October 8, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

If it causes the chains to reduce fats, sodium and calorie levels regardless of how quickly customers change, or if they change at all, it will have a salutary effect. Like the elimination of harmful fats in frying.

How many times does it have to be said that eating is a very complex activity and that people are not necessarily rational about their eating habits?

Personally, I think that if life were less stressful and more validating for low-income people, maybe they would more closely approximate Ezra's noble eating habits.

Generally I like this blog very much, but hectoring people about (over)eating on the part of people who are young, attractive, educated and (apparently) successful and have fewer responsibilities is really, really tiresome.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 8, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Fast-food menus aren't constant. Do we know how they changed from before to after labeling, and whether they're any different (say, price-wise) in new york and newark?

Posted by: paul314 | October 8, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

If the conclusion is that people didn't notice the signs, it's not a critique of the effect of seeing labels on consumption as much as a critique the labels! If they're too small to see, or if there's so much clutter people don't see it, especially if you're in a low-income neighborhood and you're not used to seeing it, you wouldn't expect people to respond.

Posted by: GrandArch | October 8, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Fast food joint trash holes -
small to keep the wrong things out,
but mouths open wide.

Posted by: gdcassidy1 | October 9, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

"I think fast food ordering habits are pretty ingrained and few people even look at the menu. Any changes in behavior will be long-term."

Yep. Nice to see someone's got their head out of their a$$....

Posted by: antontuffnell | October 9, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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