Obesity

Conspicuous Calorie Counts Can't Control Consumption

There is little reason to believe the FDA's new menu regulations will make people thinner.

|

The new federal regulations requiring conspicuous calorie counts for "restaurant-type food" not only force eateries, bars, bakeries, grocery stores, and movie theaters across the country to present consumers with information. They force consumers to see that information, whether or not they want it, on the theory that they will be grateful when they recognize the error of their gluttonous ways.

Putting aside the ethics of this paternalistic intervention, there are good reasons to question its effectiveness. There is little evidence that calling attention to the caloric content of food and beverages through mandatory disclosures on menus and signs affects purchases, let alone total consumption or weight.

The new rules, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued last week under a mandate imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dictate in picayune detail exactly how chain restaurants and various other victual vendors must present calorie counts. On menus, for instance, the numbers have to be printed "in a type size no smaller than the type size of the name or the price of the associated standard menu item, whichever is smaller, in the same color, or a color at least as conspicuous as that used for the name of the associated standard menu item, and with the same contrasting background or a background at least as contrasting as that used for the name of the associated standard menu item."

The aim, the FDA explains, is to "increase internalization of future costs into current decision-making by making the long-term health consequences of consumer food choices more salient and by providing contextual cues of food consumption." Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the government can make calorie numbers unavoidable, but it can't force consumers to act on that information, and research indicates that they generally don't.

Perhaps the strongest evidence in support of the new regulations comes from a 2011 study reported in the American Economic Journal that found New York City's 2008 menu mandate was associated with a 6 percent drop in the average calorie content of items purchased by Starbucks customers. But that's a pretty modest change, and it's not clear whether it corresponded to a decrease in total calories consumed each day.

Another potential weakness of that study: Starbucks customers are relatively affluent and probably are more calorie conscious than the average consumer. Similarly, a 2007 survey by New York City's health department found that customers at Subway, which heavily promotes a subset of its menu as lower in calories and fat than its competitors' offerings, were especially likely to notice nutritional information, although only 12 percent said it affected their purchases.

By comparison, a 2009 study reported in the journal Health Affairs 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 New York's rule took effect. A follow-up study published by the International Journal of Obesity in 2011 found no evidence that mandatory calorie labeling affected orders by adolescents or by parents buying meals for their children.

Another New York City study, reported last year in the American Journal of Public Health, considered whether informing customers about recommended calorie limits (as the new FDA rules require) affected purchases at McDonald's. It didn't.

"Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people's ordering behaviors at all," the lead author of that study told NBC News. She noted that "the people who set these policies aren't very representative" of the people whose behavior they are trying to change.

In other words, people who wouldn't be caught dead at McDonald's mistakenly assume that Big Mac fans will be just as interested in calorie counts as they are. They fail to consider the possibility that the real issue is not lack of information but differences in tastes and preferences. The result is a policy that imposes heavy burdens on businesses without making their customers any lighter. 

© Copyright 2014 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Advertisement

NEXT: Brickbat: Wait Staff

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.

  1. If I’m eating out, calories are obviously the last thing on my mind. I can whip up in my kitchen a 10x healthier version of almost any restaurant item – as can most of the population. This isn’t exactly breaking news.

  2. The steady-state conception of metabolism is a fallacy anyway. The USDA & nutrition “experts” just don’t want to admit they caused generations of obesity & diabetics with the flawed food pyramid and fat demonization.

    1. This. I’m more worried about the impact of a 1000 cal carb heavy meal than a 2000 cal fat-laden one, but to these people its all the same. Ketosis? Never heard of him…

      1. THIS is correct!

        The government proscibed “healthy diet” is an un-healthy diet. All the rest of this is lipstick on a pig.

  3. Deja vu all over again. Is this the third or fourth of these?

  4. Yeah, when I go to 5 guys to pig out on a giant burger, seeing the calorie count is totally going to make me turn around and go down to some foofoo yuppie joint to sip a soy latte and eat tofurkey on a cracker.

    1. tofurkey on a cracker sounds like a hazing ritual

      1. It is a war crime!

        1. Careful… You might inspire those UVA boys

          1. So next time they’ll use a roll of tofu?

    2. Tofurkey. Blech. It tastes like the lovechild of dry turkey and a towel.

      1. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s the result of Towelie getting high on crack and fucking a dried out left over thanksgiving turkey.

        1. Fuck…too late.

    3. Hope you don’t live in Seattle. The mayor pardoned tofurkey for Thanksgiving.

  5. Apparently GTAV has been removed from Target stores in Australia thanks to the efforts of SJWs and feminists.

    While it’s only one store chain in a dinky country, it’s likely a taste of things to come. Will GTA still exist as a franchise 10 years from now? Probably not in its current form

    1. Australia has always been draconian when it comes to media censorship. This is the country that banned women with A-cups from appearing in porn, remember.

      As for America, video games make too much damn money for popular franchises like GTA to be -gated. And as for the rest, Japan still doesn’t give a fuck. Video games consisting of ginormous-boobed anime girls in schoolgirl outfits getting quintuplely-penetrated by alien penis tentacles will be with us for a long, long time. Much longer than “social justice”.

      1. It what the people want.

      2. Yea alien penis tentacles…I just wish I had a little tiny arm just above my dick. It would be called the “Hand of God”

      3. I’d like to know what games you’re playing. You know, for research purposes…

        Ignoring its ever-present, strange censorship laws, Japan used to be a glorious “middle ground” between prudish America and the pearl-clutching, violence-averse Europe–you could find both extreme violence and sexuality in Japanese media if you went looking for it. But that’s been changing over the past decade. Censorship of both types of content is becoming more commonplace. Even if I sometimes dislike the content itself, I can’t be happy about that.

    2. One of my coworkers was telling me about censorship in Australia just this morning. I had no idea that happened so much in Australia.

      1. Censorship is pretty bad down under. Bans of controversial video games are not uncommon.

  6. But I thought the cupboard was bare!

    http://thehill.com/blogs/floor…..-for-nazis

    The House on Tuesday passed legislation to terminate Social Security benefits for suspected Nazi war criminals.

    Passed 420-0, the bill was approved after an October Associated Press report found that dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals forced to leave the U.S. collected millions of dollars in federal benefits.

    1. Bold action by Congress! Who says they can’t get anything done.

      /sarc

  7. It’s not about the calories.

  8. “If only someone had told me” easily becomes “if only someone had made me.”

  9. People are too irresponsible to control their own calorie intake. All grocery stores should be shut down immediately. Those wishing to eat need to apply for food ration cards from a newly formed Bureau of Diet ( which shall be armed like a SWAT team ). Once obtaining a meal ration card individuals may be allowed to exchange it for a few peas, half a carrot or whatever at one of the strategically placed feeding centers around the country where armed dietary professionals will check I.D.s to make sure they are person for whom the ration card was issued… What do think, Moochie? Giving you a big ole stiffy yet?

    1. This’ll be Gruber’s solution to bending the cost curve down since he admitted Obamacare doesn’t.

  10. …individuals may be allowed to exchange it for a few peas, half a carrot or whatever…

    Soylent Green?

    1. Only if it’s made with government certified organic soy eaters.

  11. It’s funny. When I’m shopping for food and see ‘calorie’ bull shit on the package I just don’t buy it. The last thing my kid needs is low calories.

    What’s people’s opinion around here of ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘modified’ ingredients like palm, soybean or cottonseed oil?

    1. What’s people’s opinion around here of ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘modified’ ingredients like palm, soybean or cottonseed oil?

      When used well, then Yum!

      1. The only oil I use on a regular basis is olive oil. Once in a while, rarely, I will deep fry something in which case peanut oil is always used. Honestly have no idea whether peanut oil is hydrogenated, or not, but oh man is it ever good. Ever had a turkey deep fried in peanut oil?

        1. You cook with lamp oil?

          You’re supposed to use lard.

          1. Lamp oil is peanut oil? I just filled my lamps before sitting down to the computer and spilled some on my hands, which often happens. The odor is that of kerosene. Are you implying that peanut oil can be used in oil lamps? Or just that you find peanut oil to have kerosene-like taste?

        2. Yeah peanut is not typically one of the better oils, but F it, sometimes you just gotta go w/ the best tool for the job.

          1. Whether it is or isn’t, it certainly makes poultry fried in it delicious. “Best tool” [imho] for the job.

            1. The use of vegetable oils in frying is mostly because of the FDA and AHA pushing it. There has been some recent backlash on it by skeptical scientists.

              Their issue is that heated vegetable oils release free radicals and other bad things for you at a much higher rate than animal fats. They believe that animal fats are much healthier for you if you’re going to heat them.

              1. Yep lard or tallow….

          2. Peanut is the commonest oil that has monounsaturated fat content similar to that of olive.

            I’m broke, so I save chicken fat to fry rice.

            1. And, ironically, you’re probably much more healthy for it.

    2. They are poor substitutes for lard.

      1. Almost forgot about lard I haven’t used it in so long. Don’t know whether you’re being sarcasmic or not, but real lard is the only best way to make fries.

        1. No sarcasm. Lard is the shiznit.

          1. Absolutely.

    3. Well, decades of research have shown that the causal link between consumption of trans fats and coronary disease is pretty clear. So I think limiting one’s consumption of partially hydrogenated fats is rational. I’m not overly concerned as I have a pretty good HDL vs LDL ratio, but for my stepfather it’s the opposite. So he stays away from them.

    4. I avoid them typically in favor of animal fats/oils…olive being the lone exception.
      I avoid soy particularly due to the phytoestrogens.

      1. Don’t know if it’s a matter of effeminate men like soy, or one of soy making men effeminate, but the men I know who love soy also cry when watching their favorite chick-flicks.

        1. Yeah, lots of linkages and confounding factors, but bottom line for me is I don’t want man tits much more than I want to eat meat and lard and stuff. …but that could just be my 6-egg breakfast talking

          1. My last wife cut down the numbers of cartons of eggs in my daily diet. Seems she couldn’t handle all that heavy sulfurous gas under our bed sheets. Well, she’s gone and I’m back to eating as many eggs as I damn well please.

            1. Should you enjoy the freedom, or should you suffer to attract the next spouse into your Dutch oven? Decisions, decisions…

  12. Rather than adding regulations, how about just stop subsidizing food? Corn is in everything. Why? because it is heavily subsidized by the government. Remove the distortions and let the price of food rise. Guess what? People will eat less.

    1. Remove the distortions and let the price of food rise.

      The correlation is more likely to run the other way for most food products, I suspect. But the result is irrelevant. Market distortions should be removed for their own sake.

  13. Amazing. In just a few generations the free market has obliterated the fear of food scarcity as a problem. And now, apparently, a surfeit of food is a problem the government is going to solve for us. This may cost me my libertarian membership card, but I’m worried that this may be a “problem” that the government actually solves.

    1. Oh, there’s cards now? Don’t know anything about the cards, but have done just fine for close to 60 years feeding myself. In fact the whole family has done very well, can’t recall a single case of obesity in anyone ever. Many of us are and have always been big eaters. All of us are and have always been aggressive calorie burners. Don’t want or need the government solving any dietary “problems” for any of us. One of my paternal grandmother’s sisters just passed away a few days ago at the age of 102 years. If she was still here I suspect she’d agree.

      1. The membership card comes with the annual check from the Kochtoupus. Watch your mailbox, since the checks usually arrive in the next couple of weeks.

    2. “In just a few generations the free market has obliterated the fear of food scarcity as a problem.”

      Guess the Farm Bill is now Free Market policy? Just nevermind all those subsidies paid to just about every farmer.

      1. The farm bill is a relic, and is not needed any more, if it ever was.

  14. Rock and roll doesnt forget dude.

    http://www.Anon-Rocks.tk

  15. This will work against many of their goals. Many people, young men in particular, are going to say “Wait, this burter has 1500 cal and that one only 1100? But they are the same price?! Gravy Train here I come!”

    … or, at least, that is what I would do.

    1. So you’d pick the more economically sensible burger at 1500 calories for the same price?

      1. *So would I.

        [damn you Reason, why won’t you trust me to edit??]

  16. Calorie counting works fine for someone who’s willing to throw feelings aside and follow the numbers. But that’s very few people. Knowing the energy content of foods tells us nothing we don’t already feel. It’s obvious that animals that exhibit definite growth (i.e. have a “full grown” condition, unlike, say, fish) sense their caloric balance pretty darn precisely. If that weren’t the case, people would exhibit wide swings in their weight in short periods. It’s amazing and a mystery of biology that over the course of an avg. yr., even people with a weight problem come within a small percentage of the amount they’d’ve had to consume for 0 gain. And short run changes in intake, which might be occasioned by finding out that sandwich you were contemplating eating has more calories than you thought, has no effect on long run weight changes. You take in more or less now, you’ll feel it later and compensate, unless you’re willing to feel uncomfortable.

  17. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  18. Progs gonna Prog.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.