Menu Labeling

Mandating Menu Labeling is Foolish, Not 'Easy'

Despite claims by supporters, requiring calorie counts is neither easy nor sensible.


CC/Public Domain

This week, New York City—the first place in America to require chain restaurants to post calorie information on their menus—expanded the reach of its menu-labeling law.

The city is now "the first municipality to require grocery and convenience stores with more than 15 outlets nationwide to clearly display calorie counts for prepared foods and beverages and have additional nutritional information available upon request," reports New York's Fox 5. "The rules will apply to about 1,500 food retailers."

This expansion is a microcosm of a larger, ongoing debate in Washington over the fate of federal menu-labeling rules.

In a column last month, I correctly predicted the agency responsible for implementing the rules, the FDA, was likely to delay—once again—implementing enforcement of its menu-labeling rules. The agency delayed enforcing the rules—which were mandated by Congress under 2010's Affordable Care Act—for one year, just days before enforcement was set to begin.

I oppose mandatory menu labeling for many reasons. For one: it's ineffective. Research has shown that posting mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus doesn't help people make better choices.

One key sticking point in Washington is whether the federal rules should apply (as they now do in New York City) to grocery and convenience stores, along with pizza chains. This week, the USA Today editorial board weighed in on the issue. Apparently, the USA Today editors have never seen a less intractable problem than devising and complying with menu-labeling rules.

"It's not rocket science," the USA Today editors note. It's "so seemingly simple."

Isn't it even a little bit difficult? Nope.

"[H]ow hard can it be to post a small sign over each offering with a calorie count?" they ask. "Not very."

The alleged simplicity of devising and complying with menu-labeling rules is a common argument in support of them. If it's so easy to provide calorie information, then certainly one place that must have figured it out is the Breaking News Café, located inside USA Today's Mclean, Va. headquarters.

I called this week to ask.

The woman who answered the switchboard at Gannett (USA Today's parent company) at noon on Thursday said she could not connect me with the cafe because she did not have their updated number. But she volunteered to me that she has not seen calorie information during the times she has been in the Breaking News Café. (She then connected me with catering, where the phone rang a few times before I was disconnected.)

I did a bit more poking around. While many of the two-dozen or so photos of the cafe show food on sale, I did not see any calorie counts displayed. Maybe this is because the calorie information just isn't there. Or it could be because the information is present but goes unnoticed (which would track with research that most people don't even see calorie counts on menus, hence defeating their very purpose). Or maybe there's a long, sad trail of unanswered internal memos from USA Today's editors demanding calorie counts be displayed at the Breaking News Café.

I don't know. (No one responded to my Thursday email to the editorial board.) One thing I do know, though, is that the USA Today editorial gets at least one key fact wrong about menu labeling when it argues the FDA rules place "no burdens on small business, as the law applies only to chains with 20 or more outlets."

As I've written time and again, that's not how it actually works. Franchisees—small-businesspeople who own one or more restaurants that USA Today argues should be subject to the rules, such as your local Domino's franchisee—could be forced to comply with the rules. A small businesswoman who owns one Pizza Hut location, for example, would have to pay perhaps thousands of dollars to buy one or more new menu boards if the FDA applies its rules to small businesses like hers.

Ultimately, despite the claims of menu-labeling supporters, it's neither easy nor cost-free nor effective to force food sellers to add calorie counts to their menus.

We should scrap this menu-labeling nonsense. While the FDA is an easy target, the agency can't act alone. Congress passed a law requiring the FDA to create a menu-labeling regime. If Congress wants to repeal one part of Obamacare that doesn't work, it can and should start with menu labeling.

NEXT: That Old-Time Civil Religion

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  1. The strongest reason to oppose the ruling made by Obamacare / Obama is that it violates freedom of the press for the state to dictate to people what to print / display / publish (or not to).

    I find it strange Reason didn’t even mention this obvious violation.

    1. Yeah, who needs instructions on how to use pharmaceuticals?

      /devil’s advocate

      1. Yeah, no company would ever want to tell customers how to use its products. I’ve never seen any owner’s manual for vacuum cleaners, cars, anything except pharmaceuticals.

        1. Oh, I agree, S. You know, a lotta products even have hotlines and on-line help!

          1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

            This is what I do…

        2. Hmm – yeah tobacco companies sure made a fortune for a long time informing their customers about their products.

          1. “Not a cough in a carload.” “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” … “Ask your dentist why Old Golds are better for the teeth”

      2. I need a lot of things – like money . I don’t coerce people into providing me that – may you so as an act of helping humanity

  2. “”[H]ow hard can it be to post a small sign over each offering with a calorie count?” they ask. “Not very.”

    Apparently the calorie count just appears by magic, there is no effort or cost involved in determining such things.

    Unfortunately, the journalism business is filled with people who do not know what they do not know but are quite prepared to offer an expert opinion on what they do not know.

    1. Not are they interested in a cost/benefit analysis. If it casts a lot and no one uses it, why do it?

    2. It speaks volumes about how USA Today gets its statistics. They just appear by magic.

      1. They get them from global warming models.

    3. What they do know is their own business, in which new stuff gets printed & distributed every day. Maybe they think every biz w printed matter is like that.

    4. Not to mention that ‘calorie counting’ is a semi-useless Victorian-era oddity that serves no real function.

      1. I use the calorie counts to maximize how many calories I get per dollar! Get fatter more efficiently! Actually, I would like it if they just put per each dish, calories per dollar! To hell with the Foo-Foo the Snu French food, where you get one cubic centimeter for $50, however “refined” and “delicious” it might be…

        1. Exactly. If you’re paying for food, at least pay for food value. That’s what calories are — how much energy you can get out of the food item.

  3. What’s the calorie count of a Big Mac? Easy. With what combination of toppings? You’ve got to be kidding.

    1. When I used the McDonalds kiosk for the first time, I was confused why it made me select which beverage since they just hand me a cup anyway…..yeah, it was for the calorie total.

      For the record, I was over 3k on that order.

      1. Including the free toy?

        1. Don’t eat the toy, it will make you fat.

          1. There’s no such thing as a free toy.

      2. WTF could you eat in a mcdonalds that is 3000 calories? That’s like 3 big mac meals with a milk shake.

    2. the standard issue big mac is about 600 calories, since you can’t get bacon on it, I don’t know WTF you’re talking about. the lettuce pickles and tomatoes that come on it are basically no calories and the special sauce is what makes it a big mac.

  4. I’m not really surprised that editorial writers at major newspapers are a bit hypocritical. It’s a job, it’s a shtick, it probably pays the bills.

  5. require grocery and convenience stores with more than 15 outlets nationwide

    Why does New York hate people who shop at Mom-and-Pop stores? WHY?!

    1. Why is fifteen the magical number? Why not fourteen, or sixteen? Seems kind of arbitrary…

      1. Probably because that is the number where they have made a clear decision to expand via operational franchising or debt/stock issuance – and NYC has close to 100% of the universe of financiers who know whether that is actually an arbitrary number or not.

        Do YOU know of any companies that say – ok I’ll expand to 14 or 16 outlets and then that’s it?

        1. The guy who wrote it has a buddy with 14 stores.

  6. to what end? this would reduce obesity? seems like magical thinking as opposed to science.

    1. “seems like magical thinking as opposed to science”

      So does the Big Bang theory.

      1. Unlike the sound reasoning of creationism.

        1. Check out H Arp if you need a theory which is neither big bang nor biblical. His novel take on the red shift had him driven out of US academia.

        2. Creationism and the Big Bang are the same thing. The settled science used to be that the cosmos had existed forever, unlike those primitive religious types who said it was created instantaneously out of nothing. Then a few rogue scientists studied the question a little harder, and discovered that the evidence pointed to an instantaneous creation out of nothing. Voila!

    2. To what end?

      Giving people the information they need to make informed choices.

      1. You sound like an apologist for Russian hackers helping to better inform the US electorate.

  7. For want of a calorie count the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese was ordered.
    For want of a something to wash it down make it a combo. Super sized. Diet Coke. And a chocolate shake.
    For want of some ketchup the dispenser was pumped and some pounds were gained.
    For want of tensile strength the rear seam failed.
    And all for the want of a calorie count.

    1. They’ll pry muh calories from muh cold fat chubby fingers.

  8. Nothing bad has ever happened because people were thinking about what was good for society too much.

    1. What would be good for society, would be for everyone who wants to buy (or inherit, or otherwise own) fingernail clippers, to be forced to take an expensive safety training course from MEEEEE, first! And fingernail-clipper designs should have to be vetted as safe and effective, by the FDA, too… Being the “medical devices” that they so obviously are…

  9. Linnekin hasn’t actually read the study that he claims shows calorie counts don’t help. If you click through the layers of links you get here:…..6C10677922

    This study didn’t test the effect of calorie counts on menus. It tested the effect of telling consumers how many calories should be eaten at a meal or in a day. All participants were tested in New York restaurants with calorie counts on the menu. That is very very different.

    And it undermines Linnekin’s point considerably. Though it is still true that it is expensive.

  10. Lots of smoke and mirrors about research done showing that labeling does not work. But, where is the research cited? I call bullshit on articles that don’t cite things they claim. I would love to have menu labeling and would use it. Because some food lobbyist lawyer doesn’t like would seem to recommend it?

    1. Lots of smoke and mirrors about research done showing that labeling does not work.

      A big ol’ Drano and cyanide milkshake works just fine, too. Depending, of course, on what your desired outcome is and, therefore, what your definition of “works” is. How about if it’s none of the fucking government’s business to be telling people what they should or shouldn’t be shoving in their fat faces, does menu labeling “work” to get government out of my wallet and out of my gullet?

      1. Indeed. Libertarianism doesn’t have to be utilitarian as well

  11. If calories are important to your diet, you already know what not to eat.

    1. Maybe. My dad tries to eat “light” by ordering fettuccine alfredo.

      With a caeser salad.

      Given the printing expense of menus I would favor a five year grandfather period for anything already printed. Just offer a printed menu at the counter for anyone who cares.

      Or hell, it costs a few bucks to place decals on an existing menus.

      1. Everyone should suffer because your dad is dumb.

        1. My dad seems pretty typical.

          I think this is not a hill worth dying on.

    2. There are about 20 apps to tell you how many calories are in fast food. If you give a crap about your weight you aren’t eating at mcdonalds more than once a week anyway.

      1. I think most people would be shocked by the calorie counts at sit down restaurants.

        Not many home cooked meals start with a cup of cream and a stick of butter per serving.

  12. But what about the insect parts and rodent hair contents? Won’t they have to report those too?

    1. Hey, what do you think the “natural” label means?

      1. Or organic.

  13. Let’s not pretend this isn’t going to affect how people eat. I already know I am never eating at Cheesecake Factory again. Holy crap, you have to be Michael Phelps to justify eating one of their meals.

    No, the question is whether the printing of calorie count information on menus should be coerced. Do we want a society where human change, improvement, and awareness is forced upon people, or a society where people are inspired and moved to change, improve, and become more aware of their own free will?

    1. Agreed. However I think that if all government activity were of this sort, as opposed to pretending every puddle is a wetland, then I think we would all have a better opinion of government.

      So, as a rule I hate government meddling. I just don’t think this is my highest priority for outrage.

      Much like seat belts.

  14. Just opens up another path for lawyers to sue a restaurant. Follow the money this is no doubt heavily influenced by Lawyers Associations in Washington and the state bar associations.

  15. People who say it’s easy have never cooked. Amounts vary. You don’t measure every little ingredient. It’s just government overreach. Look at that big fat greasy cheese and bacon covered hamburger. You are lookign at 1200 calories. Quit overeating fatties! Or throw your hands up and give up, and eat what you want. Quit blaming other people on your personal faults and laziness.

    1. “Look at that big fat greasy cheese and bacon covered hamburger. ”

      Looking at a hamburger won’t tell you its calorie count. You need a bunsen burner and other such scientific equipment. I wouldn’t be surprised if test tubes were also required. Having the number on the menu would save you a lot of trouble, either committing calorie counts to memory, as you have apparently done, or worse still, donning a white coat and measuring the calorie count for yourself.

      1. All that matters is the carbs in the bun. Atkins.

      2. Bunsen burner and test tube won’t get you there.

        You need a bomb calorimeter. That’s right. It has the word “bomb” right there in the name. You know what that means….

        If the labeling rules get pushed through, the Terrorists Win!

        1. I logged in just to +1 that comment, Cyto.

    2. Do you seriously think that major food chains don’t follow recipes, but just throw the ingredients in randomly? May taste like that at some outlets but I assure you they are cooking to a formula (and budget).

      1. Or just reheating a bag of frozen goodness.

  16. “Do we want a society where human change, improvement, and awareness is forced upon people, or a society where people are inspired and moved to change, improve, and become more aware of their own free will?”

    I think we get the society we deserve. We accept coercion for children; America’s increasingly infantilized adults are accepting the same paternalistic treatment.

    1. They may be getting that treatment, but not always accepting it.

  17. Go all lawyerly weasel words on them. Use a range (generally allowed to deal with topping variations) of 10 to 2500 calories, depending on toppings, and how much of the meal you actually eat, and how many of them you eat. Problem solved, just one big sign as you come in.

    1. Have you been to Chipotle? Their menu has calorie counts and it’s something like (I forget the actual numbers): steak burrito 300-800 calories.

      1. Someone just filed a suit against Chipotle because the sign had “300 calories” or something close to that on a new chorizo burrito sign, and the reality was closer to the 900-1200 listed on the regular signboard that doesn’t change.

        1. good to know these calorie numbers help someone.

  18. My secret sauce has very calories and is high in zinc.

    1. My secret sauce is best as a double.

  19. I personally love the calorie counts on restaurants but they should be option and not mandated. I know when i eat out i pay attention and buy differently due to them in order to find a balance of what i want without overeating.

    I know there is massive variations in meals and getting an exact number is impossible and a range is hard even.

    I love places that have it on their menus but mandating it is 100% statist and stupid and bullshit.

  20. No substitutions. No daily specials. No seasonal changes or test marketing . and how does the brunch buffet work now?

  21. I think posting that info is personally helpful to me. Hell, as of this moment I’ve lost ten pounds in the last six weeks with my only formal change being religiously avoiding all meals over 700 calories (and the informal change of occasionally substituting Soylent for a meal when I feel like it).

    I’m also not an idiot; I’m capable of seeking out and patronizing restaurants that offer this helpful service without needing Uncle Sam to lean on them for me.

  22. I commend New York’s Health and Consumer Affair’s Department for taking a proactive approach towards battling obesity. In the last year, I lost over 40 pounds. All because during one of my visits to McDonalds. I was going to order my usual order of two double cheese burgers and two large orders of fries, when I noticed the menu board had the calories for each of those items as well as the 2,000 average daily calorie intake disclosure. After calculating how many calories I was eating, I came to an incredible realization. By reducing my portioning intake and changing my menu selection, I can still have McDonald’s and start managing a daily calorie intake of 2,000 calories a day. A year later and 43 pounds lost, I am exercising on a daily basis reduced my risk for diabetes, substantially improved my cholesterol levels and increased my energy level.

    My goal as a 56-year old non-smoker male is not to be a captive to expensive prescription medications to keep me alive and will reduce my discretionary income. I still eat fast food on a weekly basis. I just modify my menu items I purchase on the menu.

    I believe that with increase consumer awareness through menu transparency of the calories on fast food items (even sold in grocery and convenience stores), more people like myself, will be able to make healthier decisions and find a clearer path towards combating obesity.

    1. There you go. If we can save even one person from ignorance, who could be against cradle to grave govt?

  23. … I’m curious how Mr. Linnekin feels about allergen warnings and ingredient lists. It’s the same thing: compelled speech of something that’s non-trivial to find out?, that will only be useful and used by a small portion of the population, requiring changes to existing menus/signage/etc.

    That said, this may be “coerced speech”, but it’s only of the “full disclosure” variety. There’s no compelled message, no propaganda, just “these are the facts”. It’s not even like cigarette propaganda labels.
    ?Not all allergies are as simple as “nuts”.
    ?Keyword. Fantasies need not apply.

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