Fattening the Nanny State

The folly of menu labeling laws


Obese people and public-health scolds have one thing in common: a compulsion to keep behaving in a way that does not produce helpful results. The obese tend to keep eating too much and exercising too little regardless of what others say. Disciples of maternal government persist in meddling in individual choices whether it works or not.

One of the pet campaigns of the second group, ostensibly on behalf of the first one, is forcing restaurants to provide accessible nutritional information about their offerings. In 2008, the city of New York passed a law mandating calorie data on fast-foot menus and menu boards, on the assumption that better knowledge would make for healthier eating.

"Presenting nutrition information on restaurant menus empowers consumers and influences food choices," the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene promised. Let people know that a McDonald's Angus Deluxe is larded with enough calories to sustain a family of four for a month, the thinking went, and they'll gravitate to something more slimming.

But the early evidence suggests that people don't choose high-calorie fast foods because they don't know any better. They choose them because they like them, and they don't really care if others disapprove.

That's the implication of a new study in the journal Health Affairs conducted by researchers at New York University and Yale University. They asked questions of and collected receipts from customers at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC outlets in the city before and after the law took effect, and did the same in Newark, N.J., which has no such law.

The impact of the ordinance didn't quite fulfill those fond expectations. To start with, only about half of the fast-food customers in New York said they noticed all this helpful information, and only a quarter of the patrons in this group said it made any difference in their choices.

Even those who said the data affected their decisions were fooling themselves. Before the law was implemented, the average customer in New York bought items containing 825 calories. Afterward, the figure was 846. In Newark, during the same time period, the typical patron went from 823 calories to 826.

In neither place did diners cut back on saturated fat, sodium, or sugar. The labeling law was the moral equivalent of the Chicago Olympics bid—lots of hype to little effect.

How to explain this outcome? "New York City health officials said that because the study was conducted immediately after the law took effect, it might not have captured changes in people's behavior that have taken hold more gradually," reported The New York Times.

Nice try. The authors of the study considered that possibility and gave it little credence. "Consumers in our sample reported frequenting fast-food restaurants approximately five times per week," they noted, "which indicates that they likely had repeated experiences with calorie labels before our follow-up data collection."

Moreover, said the report, "It is not clear whether continued extensive exposure beyond a month would have made consumers more or less likely to respond to labels." Maybe the information would sink in over time. Or maybe customers who noticed at first would soon tune it out.

But it's not hard to find likely reasons for the failure of this approach. One is that the sort of people who make a habit of eating at Burger King generally don't put a high priority on a sound diet. Giving them nutritional information is a bit like recruiting for Greenpeace at a rifle range—a doomed enterprise. The people who are most likely to act on fast-food nutritional information are the ones least likely to encounter it, because they're packing a lunch or eating at home.

Rebecca Krukowski, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, says another factor may be at work—what might be called the coals-to-Newcastle problem. "Oftentimes, when people are interested, they already have the information," she told me. "Maybe they've already been through a weight-control program and become well-educated about nutrition and have become pretty good at estimating calories."

So the menu labels tell them little they didn't already know. Meanwhile, it seems, the people who lack the needed information generally prefer to ignore it when it's foisted on them.

Architects of intrusive policies, like those at the New York health department, may wonder how on earth someone could be given valuable information and not use it to make better decisions. But we could ask the same thing about them.


NEXT: Drunk with Power

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 or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I still don’t know why Bloomberg won’t take my advice and force restaurant owners to administer an electric shock to customers when they order high calorie menu items.

    I guess New York simply isn’t serious about protecting the public from grease-pushing clowns.

    1. Guess not.

    2. Why not just weigh people before seating them?

      Overweight people can receive an automated message about the dangers of consuming too many calories.

      After all, this is what’s supposed to take place, internally, anyway.

  2. Sorry, I don’t see anything wrong with forcing nutritional information to be made available, no more than having car dealerships put certain important information on the windshield or having producers label the ingredients in their products. It helps make sure that the transactions are of mutual assent, that the person is getting exactly what they bargained for, and hence bolsters voluntariness. Note I would be against any tax or prohibitions on “bad” foods as that would lower liberty overall imo.

    1. If you want to know what is in a product only buy the labeled ones.Problem solved.

      1. Thank you. That’s what I was going to say and then I noticed who it was whining.

      2. I don’t know what is so fucking hard about accepting this. I guess too many people like MNG are pussies.

        1. I’m doubting that anyone here would defend misrepresenting the nature of the product sold to people. I just don’t think it is a far walk to get where not telling people certain information about your product is a form of misrepresentation. For food the ingredients and nutritional information is such a thing.

          I mean, if they have the “grilled chicken sandwich” for sale with no information they are probably counting on you concluding it is a healthy option, when it in fact may not be at all. Why not have them have to give certain information on it up front? This way no one can say there wasn’t mutual assent and the volutariness of the transaction is affirmed, everyone should be happy, except of course dick headed right-leaning libertarians who just want to see people “get what they deserve;” They are not only ok with people being duped, they are counting on it and need it in their life to make themselves feel smug…

          1. A consumer bringing faulty assumptions to a transaction is not the same as a seller misleading him or her.

            I don’t want people to get duped. But if the grilled chicken salad has grilled chicken, and it has salad greens, then the seller is doing all s/he is responsible for.

            The seller is not responsible for the consumer duping himself.

            And I notice you’re still avoiding the fact that major chains already do provide such information. A few weeks ago I ate at Bob Evans. I bit into the chicken I ordered, and found it horribly salty. When I got home, I looked up the information and found it had over 500 milligrams of salt.

    2. Simple: it’s an expensive burden to restaurant owners. It’s easy, by comparison, to say “We cook our food with X fat” or “Contains Allergen XYZ”. But complete nutritional information is a different story. A restaurant, in order to get a nutritional analysis of their foods, has to shell out for each menu item. This is a financial burden that can’t be borne by every restauranteur. And if yours is the kind of restaurant that has a frequently-changing menu? Well, you better change that business plan.

      It does harm liberty, by imposing stringent, not necessarily useful regulations on business owners.

      Consumers who want restaurants to provide nutritional information should vote with their wallets. Acting as if every problem requires a legislative solution is irrational and wholly detrimental to liberty.

      1. I was looking for the precise costs. Thanks,R.

  3. I still love that Paris Hilton commercial.

  4. If you want people to take notice of the calories they are eating, why don’t you make them total up the calories of all the items that they are buying before they can complete the transaction?

    I mean, if you truly believe that the gubbment has the moral obligation to protect the fatties from themselves, why not impose one more hurdle between them and their precious fries?

    One of the biggest benefits of this plan would be that the schools would no longer be pestering kids about their weight because the butterballs would be leading the way to exploding math scores. Childhood obesity would no longer be a bogeyman, but would instead become an indicator of academic excellence. The Mathlete team would have a heavier line up than the football team.

    The only thing you would have to watch out for is cheating by the stores. You’d have to make sure that McD’s didn’t manipulate their fry count so that an order ended up in an easy to add 200 calories.

    After a while you could start posting calorie counts in logarithms or simple algebraic formulas (if you wanted to really make some profits you could use 4 variables in an item’s calorie count. Then the diner would have to purchase at least 4 items from you in order to solve the total calorie count)

  5. Asymmetry of information leads to market inefficiency, so this, to me, is an improvement. It may not influence behavior, statistically speaking, but at least the purchaser of the “Snickers wrapped in bacon onna stick” knows what they just bought form a health point of view.

    This is, of course, incidental to the policy failure.

  6. If you want people to take notice of the calories they are eating, why don’t you make them total up the calories of all the items that they are buying before they can complete the transaction?

    Why stop there? For a true holistic approach, make them total up the calories they are *expending* that week.

    1. And a proof-of-exercise card from their gym, so they cant inflate the number they’re burning.

  7. Sorry, I don’t see anything wrong with forcing nutritional information to be made available

    It already was available, MNG. There’s either a brochure or a poster in every fast food restaurant I’ve been to lately. And the proles still keep eating it! They must not look at the brochures, or the posters, or the websites. I know! Let’s put the info on the menu! They have to look there, don’t they?

    And they still keep eating it. Why, it’s almost as if they don’t care how many calories a Thickburger has. What is wrong with these people?

    1. Next Up: Printing the calorie counts right on the food. Of course, the edible inks will raise the counts slightly.

  8. The founders of the Miss America contest in Atlantic City created the contest to encourage healthy living. (Apparently, they were OK with the thought of men dying prematurely.) If government officials want to address obesity, they should just invite hot models of both sexs to lead the flag salute at town hall meetings.

  9. Hey, that gives me an idea for a way to protest my county’s new ban on e-cigarrets.

  10. Libertarian Solution #1: Have Congress mandate that all forms of food are now illegal and will be considered controlled substances, ownership of which is punishable by death. Then, instate a federal-pharmaceutical organization that is the sole producer of Vita-pill, a pill that contains all nutrients we need to live, with none of the fat or taste.

  11. I keep being reminded of the line given “Mr. Rossbot” in Mozart Was a Red: “Oh, I see. [pause] I thought people smoked because they liked it.”

  12. Sorry, I don’t see anything wrong with forcing . . . .

    MNG, anytime you find yourself saying something like that, you might want to pause for a moment.

  13. As has been stated, this information is ALREADY available from the major chains. A couple of years ago i hopped on teh interwebs and found all the ‘vitals’ on some of my favorite fast food choices.
    Needless to say, i don’t eat the shell from a Taco Bell taco salad anymore (more salt than a Whopper AND fries).
    OTOH i still allow myself a weekly fried chicken sammich from BK .. w/ bacon.

    Now for independent shops, they cannot afford to do this. A reasonable assumption is that equal portions of similar products would carry very similar levels of Sodium, Fats, Cholesterol etc.
    Any one who actually cares knows that a salad with cottage cheese is healthier than a cheeseburger.

  14. Data on fast-food has been widely available for decades. Anyone who would care half a whit already knew what they needed to know, and hence wouldn’t be affected by the new laws.

    These laws aren’t about fast-food places and never have been. They are more about the sit-down chains, whose food is even worse – but until these laws passed, one could only guess how much. We knew they were bad, but dear God…are they BAD.

    In any case, I wouldn’t expect to see a change among the people who still showed up at the restaurant. If you are there you are there, and it isn’t easy to cut how much you order. The effects would be more in discouraging people from showing up in the first place.

    PicassoIII|10.12.09 @ 2:44PM|#

    Any one who actually cares knows that a salad with cottage cheese is healthier than a cheeseburger.

    Actually, most restaurant “salads” are about as bad as a burger. Clearly, you did not know this, undermining your own point.

    1. Chad wrote:
      Actually, most restaurant “salads” are about as bad as a burger. Clearly, you did not know this, undermining your own point.


      Depends on the dressing, croutons and bacon, no?
      Let me clarify.
      A salad with cottage cheese, ground pepper and a spritz of lemon.
      I was discusing ‘dishes’ intrinsically.
      Alot has to do with portions more than anything else with the ‘sit down places’. Have a ‘medium’ burger with baked potato at home and a salad from Cheesecake factory is ‘unhealthy’.
      FINISH a steak w/ sides from an ‘upscale’ steak house and you’ve gotten 2 days worth of sodium and saturated fats at least.
      They’re not called diseases of affluence for nothing.

      Just sayin’

      1. Restaurants don’t serve a scoop of cottage cheese on a bed of lettuce. They serve piles of bacon and fried bread, covered with high-fat dressings, with a bit of lettuce hidden underneath.

        Strangely enough, a simple sirloin steak and baked potato is usually one of the healthiest things on most menus.

        1. It depends what restaurant you go to. I have no trouble getting healthy food if I make a slight bit of effort.

          I can get “a scoop of cottage cheese on a bed of lettuce” at most any salad bar I go to.

          1. And if you are paying eight bucks for that, you are a moron.

            Real humans, when presented with piles of bacon bits and pools of gooey yummy dressing (which they have already paid for, mind you) eat a hell of a lot more.

            1. Why are you being randomly insulting?

              No, it doesn’t cost me $8. The one in the campus cafeteria charges by weight, not a fixed sum – I usually pay under $2. And I’m not a fan of bacon, in any case.

  15. nice post , and recomend you check the ugg boots uk,like ugg uk and buy ugg boots uk.

    1. spam – the magic of free markets at work…

  16. Sorry, I think it’s nice to know the nutrianal content of food when I go out to eat. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what I get, but other times it might. To protect real small restruants you can put an exception in for say fewer than 4 stores etc

    1. Pop quiz: When you go out to eat, do you ask the cashier/waiter whether they have nutrional information available, or do you just assume they don’t?

      Have you ever asked a restaurant manager to make that information available?

      Or are you just calling for a law because you can’t think of any other ways to do things?

  17. test comment

  18. 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.

  19. MNG, anytime you find yourself saying something like that, you might want to pause for a moment.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.