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.
October 8, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
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