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Menu labeling is not enough

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When last we saw some results from New York's menu labeling initiative, they were from an experiment testing the outcomes at fast food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, and they were dismal. Now comes news that calorie-labeling appears to be working at Starbucks. But this seems to me to be something of an expected, and depressing, result: For now, menu labeling appears to be working where people are more calorie conscious and nutritionally literate and failing where they're less attuned to those things. Put differently, labeling isn't enough.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Perlman.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 22, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Health  
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Comments

Labeling makes no sense. Everyone knows soda is bad for you, doughnuts are bad for you, large orders of fries are bad for you (all assuming you are overweight). People who smoke know cigarettes are bad for them. People don't need more information. They're going to eat the foods anyway because they don't care and/or they have no willpower.

Posted by: johndoe21 | January 22, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Not everybody knows what's bad for them, believe it or not, even when you would think it would be obvious. They might consent that the donuts with the frosting are bad for you, but the cake donuts--those are pretty good for you, right? And french fries are good for you if you don't put a lot of salt on them. And cheeseburger is good for you if you eat it with a lettuce and tomato and some of that healthy mayonnaise.

The problem is, that level of obliviousness to what is healthy and not will not be overcome by labeling. You don't get to that level of (perhaps willful) ignorance by reading labels and paying attention. The people I've know who are that unaware of what constitutes a healthy diet often don't have an idea of what kind of foods have a lot of fat and salt in them, or what is an appropriate calorie level for any given item of food, or any given meal. Saying a Big Mac has 1200 calories would have no meaning to them.

The solution may be to have someone standing sentry with a cattle prod everywhere fattening food is sold and delivering a nice juicy jolt of electricity to anyone buying anything unhealthy. That would certainly help me.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 22, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Yikes - Food Police instead of Death Panels?

Will menus at Outback Steak House come with skulls and crossbones next to the so-called bad items?

I'm all for labeling, but not quite ready to legislate the equivalent of average fleet mileage in the resturant business.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 22, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Isn't this basically what McArdle predicted?

Posted by: Klug | January 22, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Right. Everyone knows donuts are bad for you, so why doesn't the government ban them. Ditto for red meat. Let's have a rationing system with government stamps that would limit people to no more than 4 ounces of red meat a day. Federal laws should replace salt used as a preservatives with new chemicals that are just as effective, and don't lend any taste to the products they are used in. Banning some foods from stores is the only way to get people to stop eating them.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | January 22, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Guys- it's not a bad thing that the labeling requirements have helped a portion of the population eat healthier. Just because they haven't worked in low income areas doesn't mean the project is a failure.

Posted by: Quant | January 22, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

"Right. Everyone knows donuts are bad for you, so why doesn't the government ban them. Ditto for red meat. Let's have a rationing system with government stamps that would limit people to no more than 4 ounces of red meat a day. Federal laws should replace salt used as a preservatives with new chemicals that are just as effective, and don't lend any taste to the products they are used in. "

You do realize that giving people information about the food they eat is not the same thing as controlling the food they eat, right?

Posted by: PeterH1 | January 22, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I went to McDonalds yesterday for the first time since the NYC law went into effect. First, I was kind of stunned that all the vlaue meals weighed in at around 1,100 to 1,200 calories unless you saved a couple hundred calories with a diet drink. I actually would have gone for a lower calorie item, but the only things on the menu that really qualified were the salads. It was a cold day, and I didn't want cold food, so got the Quarter pounder with cheese. (remember when the quarter pounder without cheese was standard and you paid extra for the fat, I mean, cheese?)

moral of the story: it's not like there are a lot of great lower calorie options at most fast food places where the poor tend to eat. It is a lot easier to get a lower calorie substitute at starbucks.

Posted by: jdhalv | January 22, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

"...menu labeling appears to be working where people are more calorie conscious and nutritionally literate and failing where they're less attuned to those things."

And this is a surprise to you?

(BTW, johndoe21, soda, donuts, and french fries are bad for you even if you are not overweight)

Posted by: exgovgirl | January 22, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Maybe those in low income neighborhoods don't care about calorie count. They like a cheap, tasty meal, above health and wellness. Short of putting a gun to their head and forcing them to eat rice cakes, there going to choose with their wallet and their tongue, not their gut.

Posted by: BeatKing11 | January 22, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

" Short of putting a gun to their head and forcing them to eat rice cakes, there going to choose with their wallet and their tongue, not their gut."

What a depraved statement. You think that the poor are like animals, unable to act in their long term best interest even incrementally or piecemeal when presented with better options or incentives. In contrast to the middle class and wealthy. Usually conservatives hide their contempt for the poor better. And before anyone defends him, reread what he wrote so that you don't defend a sanitized reinterpretation.

Posted by: jdhalv | January 22, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Not to argue with exgovgirl...I think we are on the same side. I'm a registered dietitian, and my point was that if you are normal weight,and exercise, an occasional doughnut, or french fries is not bad for you, particularly if you exercise and keep your weight normal. I will concede that I see no nutritional value in sodas at all, but french fries? Potatoes and vegetable oil? That's not bad at all.
I had a very bad experience once in Mexico, in which I was shot at. It took us three days to get out of the country...I could not eat due to my anxiety, but I survived on Coca-Cola's, which I knew to be safe from food-borne illnesses and which provided calores. Cokes are not something that I drink at all normally. My only point being that no foods should be banned. It's just a sad state of affairs that people have no will power, and the rest of us are forced to pay for the health problems that result as a consequence of their poor choices.

Posted by: johndoe21 | January 22, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

johndoe21: The dose makes the poison.

A can of coke is not especially healthy, but it's only 140 calories. It can fit quite comfortably into a healthy diet. The question is not whether to drink Coca-Cola or not, the question is how much Coca-Cola should you drink.

The problem, in fact, is precisely that people think food is merely "good" or "bad." If it's a question of either flying right and eating "healthy food" or eating whatever you feel like, most people are going to eat whatever they feel like, because at least there you know what you're getting. But if you can quantify things, then you can appreciate that even small changes like eating only two cookies instead of three can add up over time to real health improvements.

Posted by: usergoogol | January 22, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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