Calorie labeling doesn't work. Hurry up and implement it! 

In my very first contribution to The Washington Examiner I argued that the empirical case for mandatory calorie labeling in chain restaurants was weak. Today I'm happy to find the same points made by nutritionist and labeling advocate Marion Nestle in The New England Journal of Medicine:

Some preliminary studies found menu labeling to lead to slight reductions in the number of calories people purchase, particularly when such labeling is accompanied by a statement referring to a recommended intake of 2000 kcal per day. Other studies, however, found no effect or indicated that such posting might actually encourage young men, in particular, to eat more. Because these studies were largely conducted in classrooms or school cafeterias and used self-reports, cash-register receipts, or other such indirect measures of food consumption, their overall significance is not easily interpreted.

The study with arguably the most favorable results came from Yale and took place in a highly contrived environment: Subjects sat in classrooms with dividers between the desks to isolate them, ordering from a menu of food that would be picked up and delivered to them. Hardly a conducive environment for enjoying a meal! That study also found that unless subjects were informed that they should only consume 2,000 calories per day that they compensated by eating more later in the evening, erasing any benefit to their reduced consumption in the classroom. The study was spun as a victory for labeling initiatives.

As Nestle notes, results from actual restaurants in New York don't fare much better:

New York City has now had calorie labeling in place for 2 years, and it is worth asking whether this initiative has improved customers' purchases, induced restaurants to reduce the caloric content of their foods, or educated the public about the calories in foods and diets. One study examined the first question; the others have not yet been addressed. Shortly after the labeling began, investigators collected cash-register receipts and survey responses from more than 1100 fast-food customers in low-income New York City neighborhoods and in Newark, New Jersey, a city with comparable low-income neighborhoods but no menu labeling. Although nearly 28% of New York customers said they noticed and were influenced by calorie labeling, this group purchased about the same number of calories as everyone else. This result might be expected, since these outlets were located in areas with little choice in restaurants and where residents might be likely to seek low-cost foods that are high in calories.

Encouraging chains to reformulate their products or reduce portion sizes might be one potential benefit of labeling requirements, but a comparison of current numbers to those in my collection of 2007 nutrition brochures yields no clear trend. McDonald's, for example, decreased the calories in large orders of french fries by 30 but increased those in small orders by 20. Starbucks has decreased the calories in many of its drinks, but some Subway sandwiches have more calories now. The New York City Health Department's more systematic evaluation, as yet unpublished, suggests that calorie reductions of about 10% have been common.

This really is an admirably frank editorial from Nestle and it shows just how much the advocates and critics of labeling are in agreement. Yet she nonetheless concludes that national labeling should go forward:

Despite such logistic problems and modest benefits, calorie labeling is well worth the trouble. Here, at last, is help for explaining the relationship of food energy to body weight. [...] Calorie labeling demonstrates that larger portions have more calories. Judging by reactions to my lectures about portion size and the Mindless Eating studies of Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, this relationship is apparently not intuitively obvious.

That's it? That's the justification for burdening chain restaurants with the expenses of testing their food, printing new signage, and cluttering their menus? Surely we can educate consumers on this point in other ways!

When the national labeling law came up for debate I and other critics suggested we wait and see if it results in healthier outcomes in the jurisdictions that already require it. One of the benefits of a federal system of government is that we can try out laws at state or local levels before imposing them nationwide. Advocates of calorie labeling take the opposite approach: Finding no conclusive signs of success, they say we must hurry up and federalize it anyway.

The federal calorie labeling law passed as part of this year's health care reform bill. Because Congress went forward without evaluating the empirical results, the entire country is stuck with a regulation that may not do any good.

About The Author

Jacob Grier

Jacob Grier is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He authors the drink and policy weblog Liquidity Preference.
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