A report was released last week showing that New York City’s menu labeling law hasn’t been working to get people to reduce their calorie intake. The study involved a number of fast food restaurants in low-income areas of the city. Receipts from before and after the calorie figures were posted were compared to receipts from a comparable low-income area in Newark, NJ, where there was no labeling at all. In the end, the researchers found that despite the fact that people reported seeing the calorie info and saying it influenced their decision-making, the average amount of calories ordered actually went up.
Those who oppose menu labeling laws are claiming victory, and while I’ve tended to agree with them that menu labeling isn’t going to influence most people’s eating habits, I think there’s a bigger picture here. And I think the issue is more than just about getting people to make better choices, it’s also about gravitating towards an end where people’s overall set of choices gradually improve by having the calorie information out in the open.
As for the study itself, I think it was way too narrow to draw any large conclusions. Lower-income people are those least likely to be concerned with calorie intake over price. In fact, the uptick in the amount of calories consumed might be happening because people get higher calorie items in the belief that they’re getting more for their money. It’s very possible that studies of higher-income consumers in different types of restaurants would show declines in caloric intake. On the other hand, the result of this survey requires some reconsideration of the meaning of previous surveys cited by labeling supporters that showed that people notice the calorie information and that it influences their decision-making. The New York study found the same thing – 90% of the people said so – yet it wasn’t leading to lower calorie choices in the end.
Where I tend to agree with supporters of menu labeling is that having the calorie information out in the open often spurs the restaurants themselves to provide healthier choices. As Corby Kummer notes here, Starbucks has already modified some of their higher-calorie items in response to the laws and even some fast food chains have been altering their menus. In the end, I see this as a worthwhile benefit to the labeling laws. While the vast majority of people aren’t going to change their eating habits, if restaurants are motivated to reduce the calorie counts of their offerings in various ways, there will certainly be a positive downstream effect of that.
That said, my concerns about menu labeling haven’t changed much either. Will these requirements be imposed on all food outlets, potentially making it difficult for smaller restaurants to comply – especially ones who rotate their menus a lot (in King County, the requirements only apply to large chains)? Will the calorie measurements themselves be accurate enough to be trusted? Are they simply inaccurate for places like Subway, where you custom make your own sandwich? None of those are serious enough concerns for me, but my main concern is what happens to restaurants with higher calorie items (because there’s legitimate demand for it) who then become targets for overzealous public health officials. When the supporters of menu labeling move from simply trying to inform people’s choices to trying to limit them is when I hop the fence and start yelling with the libertarians.
But unless that point is reached (and maybe I’m somewhat naive for not thinking it’s guaranteed to happen), I’m ok with having restaurants forced to post the calorie totals on menus. It doesn’t influence my decision-making now, but I realize that it might in the future. I think what rubs me the wrong way about the opposition to these laws is how overt the astroturf nature of it is. For instance, here’s a release on last week’s study from the Center for Consumer Freedom. They proudly refer to themselves as the most vocal opponent of New York’s menu labeling law. But why? Posting calorie counts doesn’t threaten consumer freedom in any way. In fact, provided that the counts are relatively accurate, it arguably expands consumer freedom, by giving people better information to make choices. But in the PR world, buzzwords like “consumer freedom” have often been used to make people feel like they’re fighting for their own liberty when in reality they’re fighting to keep corporations from having to do extra work.
From this point, I think there are two directions this can go. Either the public health advocates are right and restaurants will slowly improve the healthiness of their offerings, or the libertarians and the restaurant lobby are right and this is only the beginning of a more aggressive effort to make our choices for us.