Menu Mandate’s Missing Math

You can show people calorie numbers, but you can’t make them count.

The most conspicuous effect you will see from President Obama’s health care overhaul won’t be at your doctor’s office or the hospital. It will be at your local Burger King.

That’s assuming the Senate goes along with a provision, already approved by the House, that requires restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to display calorie counts on their menus. Although supporters claim such mandates have the power to make people thinner and prevent obesity-related disease, New York City’s experience suggests they have little or no impact, possibly because customers who are interested in nutritional information can already obtain it.

New York began requiring calorie counts on restaurant chains’ menu boards in July 2008. The first study to examine the regulation’s impact, reported in the American Economic Review last May, found that average calorie intake (measured by receipts showing what a sample of customers had bought) remained basically the same at a Manhattan coffee shop and at a Manhattan location of a hamburger chain while falling by 77 calories at a Brooklyn location of the same chain.

Another study of New York’s menu mandate, reported in Health Affairs last month, was even less encouraging. The researchers found that the average calorie count for meals at four fast food restaurants in poor neighborhoods (McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC) rose by 2.5 percent after the rule took effect.

Comparing interview responses to diners’ receipts, the researchers found that what people said did not correspond very well to what they ate. The share of diners who said they noticed calorie counts rose dramatically after the menu mandate kicked in, from less than 20 percent to 54 percent. But less than a quarter of those who reported seeing calorie information said it led them to consume fewer calories, and “even those who indicated that the calorie information influenced their food choices,” the researchers noted, “did not actually purchase fewer calories.”

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene prefers to cite its own, unpublished data, but even these numbers do not live up to the hype that preceded the menu mandate. Surveying 275 locations, the department found statistically significant drops in calorie consumption at just four out of 13 chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Au Bon Pain, and Starbucks). 

It appears that all of these decreases were modest. The one highlighted by the health department was a 23-calorie drop at Starbucks, 9 percent of the pre-regulation average.

“We were not expecting to see miracles,” a health department official told The New York Times. But it’s hard to see how such weak results—which may not even represent net reductions, since people could easily make up for fewer calories at Starbucks by eating more elsewhere—can possibly stop 150,000 people from becoming obese and prevent 30,000 cases of diabetes over five years, as the health department predicted last year. Nor are they likely to translate into an average weight loss of three pounds a year, as the California Center for Public Health Advocacy claimed in pushing that state’s menu mandate.

Press coverage of the health department’s study emphasized a seemingly more impressive finding: Diners who said they saw calorie information and used it in deciding what to eat—15 percent of all customers—consumed 106 fewer calories than the other diners. But that difference cannot be attributed to the menu mandate, since diners who use nutritional information are apt to be the ones who were most calorie-conscious to begin with.

Such customers had this information even before New York decreed that it appear on menu boards, since fast food chains were already providing calorie counts on their websites and on posters, tray mats, and flyers in their restaurants. The impact of making the numbers more conspicuous was therefore limited to the customers who were least inclined to use them, and the same will be true if a similar menu mandate is imposed nationwide.

 Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I am lobbying to require lawmakers list their I.Q. next to their names.

  • Lawmaker||

    As long as I don't have to list my net worth.

  • Sharpton||

    Nope. Don't sign nothin' I can't read.

  • Spanish Bombs||

    HAHAHA KINDA LIKE THAT VIDEO FROM THE OTHER DAY. GOOD ONE!!!

  • ed||

    Ownership has its rewards, as well as its prerogatives. If the State owns your body, it follows that the State can tell you what to put into it, how much, and when.

  • ||

    This is such a great idea! Just look at how warning labels put BigTobacco outta bidness while saving countless lives!

  • ||

    Fist of Etiquette, I would rather see their daily consumption, including alcohol and medicines along with their bmi, cholesterol, blood pressure etc.

  • tender stomach||

    I would not.

  • Xeones||

    But it's for The Children! Sullum, why do you hate The Children? The plump, tender Children?

  • Kyle Jordan||

    "The plump, tender Children?"

    Usually, a remark like this would bring out the pervert in me (many jokes right there alone) but for some reason, it makes me hungry. I think I need help...

  • anon||

    Build a gingerbread house. It worked for my mother-in-law.

  • ||

    +1

  • ||

    Ha!

  • Jonathan Swift||

    May I make a modest proposal?

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Marinading them in their own tears makes them even tastier.

  • Rich||

    customers who are interested in nutritional information can already obtain it

    Yep. Plus, ramming detailed nutritional info down the throats (so to speak) of the ignorant will do little good, because they have no context in which to evaluate it.

  • Xeones||

    So, Kyle, is it that you eat everything you fuck, or do you fuck everything you eat?

  • Kyle Jordan||

    I fuck everything I've eaten. If I were to fuck it before I ate it, I'd possibly ingest my own semen. I'm not some fag...

    Wait a minute. I masturbate and since I'm a guy that's jerking off a guy...

    Damnit X! Now you've gone and confused me!

  • Warty||

    Hello, would you like to be friends?

  • Kyle Jordan||

    ...........!

  • Spanish Bombs||

    Do you find it ironic that you hate when people come here and call you a conservative who's afraid of change, yet you refuse to use the scary threaded comments?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Although supporters claim such mandates have the power to make people thinner and prevent obesity-related disease, New York City’s experience suggests they have little or no impact, possibly because customers who are interested in nutritional information can already obtain it."

    Ah, but that is only step one in the new Obama Amerika.

    Step two is a mandate on what is allowed to be on the menu.

    If you will not freely chose to avoid Big Macs, then the government will give you no choice but to avoid them because they won't be available.

  • Binky||

    What if I swear not to eat the Big Mac I purchase? On a government form, of course.

  • pmains||

    And here I thought step 2 was implementing a totalitarian health care scheme that would allow the government to determine who is entitled to what care.

  • ||

    It will make it easier for the fast food joint czar to say, "Sorry you fat bastard, you can't order the Big Mac, here's a salad." Hey, maybe that's how they're going to take care of unemployment too.

  • ||

    The problem with menu labeling is that it's stupid, not that it's ineffective.

    It puts an end to improvisation by chefs - if your location wants to make a special dish, too bad!

  • Kolohe||

    OTOH, improvisation by the chefs at Micky D's only consists of deciding who wants to put the 'special' in the special sauce.

  • ||

    Actually, if you read the legislation it excludes items that will be on the menu for less than 90 days, so special dishes would not be included.

  • ||

    Plump tender children. Remember, fifteen minutes per pound.

  • Rich||

    Remember, we need the *calories* per pound.

  • Binky||

    Per serving.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    A serving of plump, tender child is a pound.

  • ||

    The problem, as I see it, is that our elected representatives have forgotten that altruism is a deeply personal activity. Not one that should be made into laws. They make the assumption that Joe Average is too fucking stupid to do what they, the representatives, have decided is the right thing. It is at the root of all legislative evils, from our diet to our actions in west Asia.

  • anonymous||

    Hey, it's the progressive man's burden.

  • ||

    " The impact of making the numbers more conspicuous was therefore limited to the customers who were least inclined to use them, and the same will be true if a similar menu mandate is imposed nationwide."

    Further proof not only that the inmates truly are in charge of the asylum but also that we (the "keepers") are actively enabling the situation.

    hmmm... What does that make us?

  • ||

    Irrelevant?

  • Joe||

    We all pay for each others health care through insurance, medicare taxes etc. The government therefore has a right to tell you what to do if it will make you healthier and reduce healthcare costs.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    No, it does not.

  • Death Panelist||

    This is one of those cheap (for the government) provisions in the healthcare bill. And the cost of sending agents around for menu enforcement can be offset by the savings of not having to provide mammograms for the cougars out there.

    Government, you deficit-neutral bastards, you've done it again!

  • ||

    Actually I'm sure I'll look at and consider calorie count when making my fast food selections if they're displayed.

    I have in the past looked up calories on the internet, but that's not at the point of sale when I'm making my decision.

    The real problem here is accuracy. The main reason I stopped looking up fast food was I didn't believe what I found. If Arby's Turkey Bacon Club Sub has only 570 calories, then I'm the missing Olsen triplet.

  • ||

    You can already get them at the point of sale. You can get the info now, they all have booklets available, usually you don't even have to ask they are by the napkins.

    The fact that you don't even know that proves the point, if you would be affected by it, then you would be already motivated to take the extra few seconds to find out.

  • creech||

    Can we stop calling these people "progressives?" They are Reactionaries who want to overturn the principles of individual liberty and private property set forth in America's founding documents and return to the totalitarian and elitist ways that prevailed throughout the world before 1776.

  • Attmay||

    I stopped calling them that years ago. Trouble is, they'll find another word to sully by association with left-authoritarian ideas, like they did with the word "liberal".

  • ed||

    Only fellow "progressives" use that term. Just as they rely upon the always hilarious and clever "teabaggers" to smear their enemies on the right.

  • ¢||

    The impact of making the numbers more conspicuous was therefore limited to

    making a forced thing, as such, conspicuous.

    It's not like they think it "works," or could be persuaded by any amount of evidence that it doesn't.

    They're marking territory. You can't talk them out of it.

  • T||

    They're marking territory. You can't talk them out of it.

    Does this mean we have to mark over what they mark? I've been through this with my dogs, and at the end of the day, it's still just a puddle of urine.

    Which, come to think of it, is not an inapt description of our current Congress.

  • Raven||

    What exactly is "Mental Hygiene"?

  • LarryA||

    "Mental Hygiene" = PC for "brain washing."

  • Kyle Jordan||

    Woah! I want the gigantic name thing too!

  • LarryA||

    The share of diners who said they noticed calorie counts rose dramatically after the menu mandate kicked in, from less than 20 percent to 54 percent.

    How many who "said" they noticed the information really did?

    How many who "noticed" the information actually read it?

    It would be interesting to have the study encounter include a pop quiz.

  • aplumley||

    I'm surprised at the resistance to this. I don't care about the end effect (how much people actually ate), it ultimately empowers people to make conscious decisions about what they eat. I for one appreciate the additional information and do use that information in ordering. Further, I think the longer term effect is that more restaurants will ultimately cater to the health conscious, and allow consumers to make more objective decisions about their dining habits.
    This part of the legislation is maybe the one thing I agree with. It preserves free markets, informs consumers, and ultimately puts the onus on the individual to make good healthy decisions.

  • ||

    I'm surprised at the resistance to this. I don't care about the end effect (how much people actually ate), it ultimately empowers people to make conscious decisions about what they eat. I for one appreciate the additional information and do use that information in ordering.

    The resistence you speak of is not about the calorie information being available, its that the federal goverment is forcing these business to provide this information on their menus. If its such a great idea, I am sure a customer friendly will include that information on their menu. If you prefer to know the amount of fat/calories ect on a particular item, you are free to patronize such restaurants with label. Its kind of like the smoking bans in restaurants. If you don't like smoke--don't eat there. There is no "right" to enter a private business and expect it to be smoke free. At least that is how the free market works, but apparently we don't believe in that anymore.

  • T||

    The share of diners who said they noticed calorie counts rose dramatically after the menu mandate kicked in, from less than 20 percent to 54 percent.

    Track sales trends. If the double cheeseburgers stay at the top of the list, it doesn't matter how many fatties noticed it has a billion calories.

  • Jeffrey Dahmer||

    My baloney has a first name... it's T-O-M-M-Y...

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  • nike ghd||

    So, there is no way she knows about any of the research you site or has any idea how the world outside her own bubble actually works. So cut her some slack.

  • nike ghd||

    So, there is no way she knows about any of the research you site or has any idea how the world outside her own bubble actually works. So cut her some slack.

  • nike shox||

    is good

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