Could menu labeling make America fatter?
The 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
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