Study: Menu Labeling Doesn't Impact Food Choices

The promise of mandating nutritional information on restaurant menus was that it would lead people to make healthier choices, and thus help tame obesity. Turns out it doesn't impact our eating habits, according to a study by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium.

Menu labels on cafeteria food -- highlighting the good and the bad of various meal options -- make no difference in college students' meal choices, a new study concludes.

The results add to evidence that, despite laws in some cities mandating calorie counts on fast-food menus, nutritional information makes little difference to people when they are eating out.

[...]

Dr. Lisa Harnack, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who was not involved in this study, said she was not surprised by the results.

"In studies, when you ask people how important nutrition is to them when they're ordering food from a restaurant menu, it's far less important than a food price or taste. It's just not a consideration," Harnack told Reuters Health.

For menu labeling to truly have an impact, another intervention would be necessary.

Dr. Gail Kaye, the nutrition program director at Ohio State University, told Reuters Health that menu labels might still work to encourage healthier eating -- it's just that they need to be paired with a healthier-leaning menu.

[...]

"If [students] had more healthy options there, they might have chosen them," said Kaye.

Indeed they might have. But there's no reason a menu-labeling law coupled with offering healthier food (rather than simply offering healthier food) is needed to test that hypothesis.

While this is just one study, it supports what previous studies have found. And it's important to note the increasing lack of wiggle facing room menu-labeling proponents. Menu labeling "make[s] no difference." Nutrition is "just not a consideration."

Lots of Reason menu-labeling links here.

Bonus: Last July 4, according to nutrition data here, hot-dog eating champion Joey Chestnut ate more than 16,000 calories of Nathan's hot dogs in 10 minutes.

Baylen Linnekin is a lawyer and the executive director of Keep Food Legal, a nonprofit that promotes culinary freedom, the idea that people should be free to make and consume whatever commestibles they prefer. For more information and to join or donate, go here now.

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.

  • Jason||

    I vote beer.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Can't we require labelling on elected officials?

    WARNING: Nancy Pelosi is hazardous to your health, sanity, and solvency.

  • Baylen Linnekin||

    Me, too. 2-0. Beer wins.

  • Sudden||

    Make it a trifecta. I vote beer.

    Also, it should be noted that we must be suspicious of this Belgian study. It may just be a front to discredit the notion of putting caloric labels on Belgian beers. It may also be that Belgian beers are so tasty that individuals care not how many calories are in it, they will consume with glee irrespective.

  • ||

    It may also be that Belgian beers are so tasty that individuals care not how many calories are in it, they will consume with glee irrespective.

    For people who put qualityoflife over quanitityoflife, Isn't this pretty much the case for anything they ingest?

  • Baylen Linnekin||

    Belgian beer just makes me drunk. I know that's a feature and not a flaw for most people. I just like it to happen after several beers rather than a couple of them.

  • David E. Gallaher/Ruthless||

    When was the last time you read a prospectus?
    Same principle.

  • ¢||

    Yeah, we knew this. It's not the point. Surrounding people with nagging debris is the point. And, mission accomplished.

  • jasno||

    Really? I'd like to see a study of SoCal diners before I believe it. I've used menu nutrition info several times over the past month to avoid some hidden calorie bombs. My wife has gallstones and couldn't eat out safely without information on fat content.

    Not that I'm in favor of forcing restaurants to provide it, but I have my doubts regarding the claim that no one uses the information.

  • Sudden||

    Admittedly, skepticism is healthy for this study. The participants are all college students. Now, I have no clue how Flemish college students are, but I know here in 'Murica, college students view price as the central contraint on dining options, not calories. Moreover, when you're in college, you can rest assured that your metabolism is sufficiently active to burn off whatever calories you consume. Now, adults may be different. I'm not quite 29 and have already been informed that I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol by my doctor in my most recent physical (and it's not like I'm a complete lard ass either, 5'9" 178 lbs.). So now, I'm starting to be a little more deliberative in what I consume.

  • The Enema Man||

    I remember being a very physically-active college student on a very constrained food budget. If calorie information had been available and someone else was paying, I probably would have chosen the most caloric item. If I was paying, I might have found the best calorie/price ratio.

    Now, not so much. When I eat in a restaurant I am mostly interested in getting food I enjoy.

  • Sudden||

    very physically-active college student

    You're lucky they have shots to take care of most of the consequences of such "physical activity" these days.

  • Meiczyslaw||

    Agreed. The wife and I will use this on occasion: I to avoid hidden* carbs (diabetic), and she to avoid excess calories and salt.

    *For example, check the information on Panera's tomato soup sometime. What the hell are you doing putting corn syrup in your tomato soup?

  • ||

    2 of the 1st four results for tomato soup on allrecipes.com include sugar. Corn Syrup is cheaper.

    Still confused?

  • Sudden||

    Only cheaper because Big Corn lobbies like hell to keep absurd sugar tarrifs in place, but I digress.

  • Rock Action ||

    I thought the same thing about the college age, and I also look at the labeling information. I would submit that food labeling and disclosure laws should be way down the list of libertarian concerns about legality and food, unless there are issues that someone can explain to me. I can think of FDA procedural issues, corporate favors and other things, but I'm just unaware. It would seem that corporate agribusiness, the regulation of small farms, food raids, and food choice would be energy better spent than disclosure laws. In my limited experience, consumer protection disclosure laws are always a genuine (meaning there's no real disconnect between people and politicians on the issue) political winner.

  • ||

    seems the are more concerned about planking locations than caloric intake...

  • ||

    You know, with all of the handheld devices out there with all of their custom apps, why can't we solve this problem by someone creating an app, with lots of someones providing nutritional data, so that I can point my device at the food in question and get nutritional information that way?

  • Pip||

    That's a very good idea.

  • ||

    Wouldn't it be racist given the demographics of people most likely to own smartphones?

  • ||

    Nah, the things are so ubiquitous, you could ask a fellow patron. Like asking someone what time it was twenty years ago.

  • Ted S.||

    Twenty years ago it was 1991.

  • ||

    Not to mention, now that I'm thinking about it, such a system would pressure the food establishments to publish their own information in-restaurant to correct any misinformation provided in this unofficial manner.

  • A Secret Band of Robbers||

    Everything except paternalism is racist.

  • ||

    why can't we solve this problem by someone creating an app, with lots of someones providing nutritional data

    I believe it's called a "web browser".

  • ||

    No, what I'm taking about is pointing your device's camera at a dish (or a picture of it), the app recognizing it and providing nutritional information about the dish. I've run across some apps like this in development for purchasing products (like clothing or electronics).

    Obviously, you could also do research on-line, either at home or on a mobile device, but this concept is more, shall we say, idiot proof.

  • Sudden||

    Taking a photo might not work well. You can snap a photo of a burrito and google goggles may recognize "burrito" but won't be able to tell if its chicken or steak, Chipotle or El Pollo Loco, etc etc.

    All smart phones come equipped with a web browser, and for anyone motivated enough to seek out nutrition information, it hardly seems necessary to create an app catered to the lazy and web-illiterate. Fucking apps are so overdone these days. Its the iphone phenomenon. Apple fanboys think that apps somehow make things easier/cooler when simply reading shit online is easier. I have the Reason app on my Android device, but I never use it (in part because of no comments). I'd rather just open it up on my browser while shitting.

  • Phlogistan||

    Hmm. Actually photography might be useful. Might have to bounce an infra red lazer off the item in question. And compare resulting reflecting light to a set of data tables.

    For simple dishes this would work. Jello, pudding, pea's.

    But complex dishes this would not be enough. A piece of BBQ chicken for example. The complex glazing of fats, oils, and heat accreated materials would produce wildly different results from the same piece of chicken.

  • ||

    Might have to bounce an infra red lazer off the item in question. And compare resulting reflecting light to a set of data tables.

    I still don't think that's going to be able to "read" what's inside the burrito.

  • ||

    Probably only works--and partially so at that--with chains.

  • ||

    Probably only works--and partially so at that--with chains.

    Therefore, any business selling food incompaitble with the IR scanners must shut down immediately or join a franchise.

    Goddamnit if progressivism isn't loads of fun.

  • ||

    It all makes a kind of crazy, diabolical sense.

  • ||

    mmmmm, Jello pudding, Please?

  • ||

    [Points phone camera at Sudden's comment, clicks, and sends comment to expert for analysis through special app.]

  • ||

    RFID chips don't taste very good.

  • ||

    No, too. I'm talking about visual recognition, not picking up a signal from a chip.

  • ||

    Pictures: There should be pictures of obscenely obese fatsos, guts hanging out over belts, enormous floppy tits, fat asses, thunder thighs, against each menu item not sanctioned by our mother, er...government.

  • Pip||

    Just look left and right.

  • ||

    All kidding aside, if you're concerned about your weight, just look at the other people eating at the same restaurant. It's just as good or better guide than putting calorie counts on the menu.

  • Phlogistan||

    omg dietary profiling!

  • Black dude||

    i dont know 'bout no burgers, but them watuhmelons sure got some good 'n low ca-low-ree content right ther!

  • White Dude||

    I love watermelon. It's good pureed with some vanilla vodka.

  • ||

    My wife and I, and the kids have been losing weight by studiously counting calories. Having that info available has been very helpful to us. Some restaurants have apps and/or web sites that allow for planning out the meal and counting calories. Much appreciated.

    I think Chipotle even allows ordering from the iphone for some locations.

    None of the above is to suggest that I support punishing restaurants that don't publish their data, or who stray from the exact amounts a bit. We weigh most of our food and the less processed the food is, the more likely it is to vary.

  • Black dude||

    OT: These shitty food laws reminded me of the rabid authoritarianism in large urban areas in America, most notably, I'd say, Chicago and New York -- what would it take, seriously, for these places to transform into at least decent (say, Texas-grade) places (personal and economic freedom)?

  • JD||

    Politicians who aren't paternalistic morons (in Texas our politicians are still morons, just less mildly less paternalistic).

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You fatties are ruining this country.

  • Black dude||

    You meant to say WHITE fatties, didn't you? *Piercing stare*

  • ||

    sry Black Dude, the correct response was "what you mean, YOU fatties?!"

  • ||

    Black dude is a clean colored man and doesn't speak in a negro dialect -- properly formulated sentences are of great importance to him.

  • ||

    Tropic Thunder reference fail.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    What do YOU mean "you fatties"?

  • Black dude||

    You meant to say WHITE fatties, didn't you? *Piercing stare*

  • Max||

    And also food inspection is unnecessary because after a few people die from contaminated food, food producers pull up heir socks and stop selling contaminated food. They aslo get good lawyers to defend themselves against legal action, and more lawyers working pumps more money into the economy. Making food safe destroys jobs and puts the brakes on economic growth. Trust the market! Making food nutritious doesn't do shit. Freedom-loving folks don't eat it!

  • Brandon||

    This is really the best you can do? I expect better of H&R trolls.

  • ||

    Based on what?

  • ||

    Do you seriously think that the only reason almost all of the food sold in stores is uncontaminated is because of the handful of government inspectors out there checking on things? Here's a clue: the market is already self-regulating like crazy.

  • ||

    So, you're saying my tiger repelling rock only works because tigers aren't native to my area? I dunno, I think I'm gonna stick with the rock.

  • Left Monocle||

    I do hope they put warning labels on the serving staff. Dirty buggers! As a patron I deserve to know what horrid disease's these serving vermin may transfer to my meal.

    I would prefer bar code tatoos apon their wrist to be easily scanned by my Ifraud device.

    Considering the infestation of undocumented workers into the food service's, I demand universal healthcare for these *sniff* peoples. It's a matter of public safety you heartless dogs!

  • Brandon||

    Isn't the left eye the gay eye?

  • Left Monocle||

    I say Brandon, we'll be needing a cabin boy for this years congressional junket to Tunisia.

    Senator "You Know Who" wont be joining us this year. Damn shame really.

  • ||

    Tell the boys I'll keep in touch.

  • Alice Bowie||

    Agreed !!!

    sniff sniff

  • Brandon||

    Once again: The actual results don't fucking matter. It's the INTENTION behind the laws that counts. And you're not against saving people from diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, are you?

  • ||

    You're making it too complicated, since no statist thinks that far. "IT'S FOR THE CHILDREN AND THE INNER-CITY MINORITY KIDS" works just fine.

  • Barack Obama||

    Let me be clear--more people dying of chronic disease is a cornerstone of my healthcare plan.

  • Er||

    Hoefkens, Verbeke and their colleagues, based at Ghent University in Belgium, asked 224 people who regularly ate at two of the university's cafeterias to log their diets for several days.

    Nice. But Belgians are just like Americans? Their dining habits are interchangeable? Faulty study.

  • JD||

    Better Belgian taxpayers pay for it than American taxpayers.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    So let's see if we can't boil this study down to its basic elements:

    People want food to taste good.

    People want to pay as low a price as possible for good food.

    People don't care how many calories are in the food so long as it either tastes good enough or is cheap enough.

    The solution becomes obvious: We must take "bad" food away from the people and give only "good" food choices.

    IT'S FOR THE FREAKIN' CHILDREN!!!

  • Sudden||

    If the children are "freakin'" and "freakin'" is an activity that burns substantial calories, then it is incumbent upon us to force these children to consume copious amounts of calories in order to sustain their "freakin'" ways.

  • Alice Bowie||

    Perhaps it makes no difference to College students but it does to me.

    I want to know what it contains and its nutritional value.

  • Sudden||

    Then you as a consumer have a right to patronize only establishments that provide that information to you.

    Fucking hell, don't people realize that you can pressure restaurants by writing letters and voting with your own damn money to provide this sort of information. Beyond that, there's also the whole argument that one need only be of substandard intelligence to recognize that fries are not as healthy as a side salad. Simple fucking common sense will tell you what to eat frequently, what to avoid, and what is acceptable to occassionally permit yourself. And seriously, more important than food health is the chronic lack of exercize. Ever since we tranformed into a largely service economy, complete with the white collar jobs and sedentary lifestyle that entails, we have turned into fat asses. People talk about Europeans being less plagued by fatties, and that is in large part a result of their urban layouts. Those are older cities that propped up in a time before the automobile, and therefore the car is less ubiquitous. People walk, ride bikes, etc. Here in Southern California, L.A. and the surrounding urban area was pretty much designed around the car and the car is god (which is why the status symbolism of the car is so entrenched into L.A. culture in a douchey way). But the solution isn't urban planning, food labeling, or crude top down efforts to transform the nature of jobs in our economy. The solution is to man the fuck and run a little, bike a little, eat a little healthier, and take care of yourself in a sane and rational manner. Fucking Common Sense, how does it work?

  • ||

    What's funny in general about people viewing big businesses as bogeymen is how wimpy those businesses really are when they get repeated consumer complaints.

    That aside aside, I agree completely. Grow up, America!

  • Alice Bowie||

    You've mentioned the obvious.

    I still want to know what's in it.

    I significantly slowed down eating McGriddles. I didn't stop completely. And, I know McGriddles aren't exactly healthy before I read the label. However, I had NO idea how much sodium and Cholesterol they contained. So, instead of once on a weekend, my family and I do it perhaps once a month.

    The Labels do work. I want to know the cut of the beef I get. Not just that it taste good.

    You libertarians talk out of both sides of your mouths with the you can always take them to court or you can write a letter bullshit and when you get upset that progressive people go to court for matters that you are not especially interested in.

  • ||

    I still want to know what's in it.

    So you ask. Anyone who won't tell you, you don't shop there. Simple enough?

  • Sudden||

    you get upset that progressive people go to court for matters that you are not especially interested in.

    First off, it doesn't matter if I get upset, it matters what a jury thinks. Such is the logic of due process, uninformed public opinion on any given legal matter means less than the presentations to 12 of your peers.

    But, if you're taking McDonald's to court for not displaying their McGriddle information and any adverse effects on your life, then yeah, I say fuck you. Buyer beware. No one is forcing you to eat a daily McGriddle, and they have no obligation to provide information that they think may be against their own interests. If they were willfully misleading, namely presenting demonstrably falsified information regarding their meals, that would be one thing, and a valid legal action. But substituting jury awards for simple common sense is ridiculous.

  • Alice Bowie||

    I agree that taking McDonald's to court over a heart attack is silly.

    But I disagree on obligating companies to disclose facts.

    I still eat McGriddles. I eat them less. And yes, McDonald's was impacted by me going once a month than once a week. The public's choice is the public's choice. But they should know what it is. And, McDonald's profits do not trump the public's choice.

  • ||

    Hey, leave me outta this!

  • ||

    It shouldn't require posting nutritional information for people to realize that fast food is shit.

    Anyone who is concerned about what foods they are putting in their bodies shouldn't be eating at McDonald's.

  • ||

    Let's just skip ahead a bit: anyone who can't tell crap from actual foods just shouldn't be allowed to live.

  • jacob||

    I'm with you, Alice. I do read labels and base my choices off them. (FWIW it's usually at the grocery store, deciding between two frozen dinners)

    What we libertarians don't like is the threat of force by the state against restaurants who don't comply.

  • ||

    OT: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1451924505/

    Comment: "I think we can solve the world's energy crisis by hooking up electrodes to Alexandre Dumas's grave."

  • ||

    Not even looking, I assume this is about the new Three Musketeers movie. Only thing in common with the book is the setting and some character names. Right?

    One of the greatest adventure novels ever, and they keep making bad, bad movie versions of it. I even liked the Michael York/Oliver Reed ones from the 70s, accepting their campy silliness for what it was. Beats the crap out of what they do to Dumas now.

  • Script Writer||

    Dood, that thing's like 700 pages long! You really think I'm going to read that ancient monstrosity before writing the adaptation?

  • ||

    I fear you are correct.

    I did like the French miniseries version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Pretty decent. Probably need the same for The Three Musketeers Heck, if you did all of the books, you could do a multi-season TV series. In fact, that's a good idea.

  • Ted S.||

    They've been making bad versions of The Three Musketeers since at least 1939. (I've never understood the appeal of the Ritz Brothers.)

  • Warty||

    I made it through 15 seconds of the trailer. Christ. Isn't it about time for a nuclear holocaust?

  • W.O.P.R. not Whopper||

    shall, we, play, a, game?

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Last July 4, according to nutrition data here, hot-dog eating champion Joey Chestnut ate more than 16,000 calories of Nathan's hot dogs in 10 minutes.

    And barfed up 15,000 calories 5 minutes later.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement