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Could menu labeling make America fatter?

M1X00175_9.JPGThe first study of menu labeling's effects in New York was pretty discouraging. The second study is somewhat better, though not comforting for anyone looking for a game-changer. The New York Times reports:

Just a few weeks ago, independent researchers reported that New York City’s groundbreaking calorie labeling law had had absolutely no effect on the caloric content of meals bought at chain restaurants in poor neighborhoods. Last week, city health officials delivered a more upbeat assessment, saying New Yorkers ordered fewer calories at four chains — Au Bon Pain, KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks — after the law went into effect last year.

The changes reported by the city health department’s preliminary data were modest, indicating little change either way in the number of calories bought at 8 of 13 chains surveyed, and a significant increase in calories ordered at Subway, which researchers attributed to a continuing $5 promotional special on foot-long sandwiches that has tripled demand for them.

That last bit is important: If you hold all else equal, clearly labeling the calories of each item on the menu doesn't make much of a difference. If you make gargantuan portions cheaper, the menu labeling does nothing -- or at least nothing obvious -- to hold back the spike in demand.

People like a good deal. In food, a good deal means lots of food for a lower price. The conceit of menu labeling -- beyond the basic argument that people should have basic caloric information -- is that people, like researchers, will agree that more calories are a bad thing. But it could, over time, go the opposite way, too: People could decide that more calories for less money represents an awesome deal.

It's not hard to imagine Hardee's -- home of the Monster Thickburger -- kicking off a campaign promising 2,000 calories for under five bucks. And if that campaign works, other fast food outlets could move in a similar direction, putting at least one or two mega-calorie options on their value menu. Fast food outlets have long asserted that they were giving you a lot of food for your money. Now they'll be able to make that argument with numbers. Indeed, you might end up with some outlets advertising how many calories you get for your money, while others tout the lightness of their meals.

The big test of this might happen sooner than people think, too. The House health-care bill contains a provision for national menu labeling.

Photo credit: By Tom Gannam/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  November 3, 2009; 1:37 PM ET
 
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Comments

Question: Does the menu include caloric content by serving size or by what one actually orders? i.e. Does Subway list how many calories are in a six inch sub and assume that everyone will do the math for the foot long? Maybe this doesn't make a difference, but I have been known to use the portion size to rationalize a purchase, fooling myself into thinking that I would only eat part of what I order and save the rest for later. (Rarely do I follow through on this.) Whereas when I see the big number of calories in the full meal, I am more likely to be frightened into choosing something else. Or in the case of McDonald's French fries running from the store in horror.

Posted by: JH11 | November 3, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Although I'm not exactly brimming with self control either, I have no problem splitting a five dollar foot-long into two lunches. This is facilitated by the fact that Subway kindly serves them already cut in half - without being asked. I generally order mine without condiments to keep the bread from getting too soggy and add my own later. I simply wouldn't order the hypothetical Hardee's Monster Thickburger, because it would not lend itself so easily to saving half for another day. Maybe I'm an outlier, but Hardee's and such ought to consider this before firing up a campaign based on Subway's success.

Posted by: adagio847 | November 3, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure how meaningful these studies are.

The real goal is to reduce overall (as opposed to restaurant) calorie consumption, right?

Folks could use the menu information to know when they need to cutback on non-restaurant calories. For example, if I know that the monster thickburger is worth 4,000 calories, I may decide to treat myself to it, but stick to tea and carrots for the rest of the day.

Posted by: df37 | November 3, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Fourthmeal, anyone?

Posted by: _SP_ | November 3, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Is "Fourthmeal" really relevant to anyone other than the intended audience, i.e. the young and drunk staying up late?

I just can't really find fault with Taco Bell embracing what it truly is.

Posted by: Klug | November 3, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

You don't need a nutritional menu. The nutritional menu is on the sign outside the building. It's TACO BELL! It's full of love handles and diarrhea.

Posted by: pj_camp | November 3, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

even if menu labeling makes america fatter, i don't think that means it's a bad policy. the whole idea is to give consumers as much good information as possible about what they are consuming, whether its burgers, mattresses, or xboxes. the calorie labeling law is a huge step in the right direction, because it allows people to make better-informed choices. if they start making different choices after menu labeling, then the policy is achieving results.

policies aimed at reducing obesity are different than policies aimed at increasing consumer's access to information about consumption choices, and the incomplete nature of the NYC labeling law makes this law's impact on obesity hard to measure.

first, you could have people who don't care about obesity or calorie consumption, or don't know how many calories one should eat in a given meal. this isn't the fault of menu labeling, it's the fault of overall public health awareness campaigns.

second, look at someone who always gets a bacon ranch salad with chicken or something at mcdonald's. now, before calorie labeling, they might have thought of this as a pretty light, healthy snack, and would have it before or after their actual lunch. now, though, seeing it's only 20 fewer calories than a double cheeseburger (and the cheeseburger is probably cheaper, i haven't checked), they might go for the cheeseburger for a real lunch and skip the salad (and any snack) altogether. from the point of view of the program researchers, calories bought has gone up; from the point of view of the individual, though, they are making healthier choices.

Posted by: rmbjspd | November 5, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

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