Food Labeling

People Will Eat What They Want, Not What Government Prefers

Nanny efforts in the U.S. and Chile to shape eating habits continue to accomplish little.


Burger and fries
Milyavsky /

This month, a pair of seemingly unrelated stories—a story about Chile's crackdown on subjectively unhealthy foods and a bill now before the U.S. Congress—make clear that the legions of do-gooders who want to compel you and others to eat just what they think you should eat are—despite their persistence—failing miserably at their jobs.

In Congress, the bill in question seeks to modify and delay the FDA's menu-labeling mandate, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The bill is nothing new. It's been kicking around since at least 2012, shortly after Obamacare became law.

Currently, the menu-labeling portion of that law, set to take effect later this year, would require many chain restaurants, vending-machine owners, grocers, theater owners, and others to post total average calorie information for most menu items.

The bill to amend the Obamacare menu-labeling law, dubbed the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which passed the House last week, would allow chain restaurants to list calories per serving for menu items intended to be consumed by more than one person, and allow pizza chains and other carry-out restaurants to post calorie information online instead of in stores. It would also delay implementation of Obamacare's menu-labeling provisions for at least two years.

Supporters claim the existing law would help people make better and more-informed choices, and oppose the listing of calories per-serving (rather than total calories), along with the other elements of the bill.

"[W]e see from the research that actually, when consumers are given this information, they actually can make lower-calorie choices, and restaurants can also come out with lower-calorie options," Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told CNN.

Certainly people can actually "make lower-calorie choices." It's just that, with mandatory menu labeling, research shows they most often don't actually make those lower-calorie choices.

"Overall, when you are looking at average consumer response to labeling, there doesn't appear to be much difference in calories purchased before and after labeling," said Dr. Jason Block, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, coauthor of a recent study on menu labeling, also in remarks to CNN.

But even that's an optimistic take on the impact of mandatory menu labeling.

"Research has shown that posting mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus doesn't help people make better choices," I wrote last year.

Why don't people just do what the law wants them to do? Well, maybe one reason is that dietary preferences and choices are deeply personal, and laws like this one that seek to change those habits ignore that fact.

A 2016 study sheds more light on that idea. In the study, researcher Olga Kozlova looked at food choices made by people in months when they had comparatively more money available (due to lower heating costs). The study found that when low-income consumers have more disposable income, they tend to buy more of the foods they already purchase, rather than spending the additional money on healthier foods.

"[I]f you were thinking—or hoping—that low-income consumers look on healthy food as a luxury that they could buy if only they could afford it, the evidence in this study doesn't seem to be in your favor," reads a New Food Economy piece on the study.

That has serious implications, writes the New Food Economy's Patrick Clinton, for many people's thinking (though not my own) around policy strategies to deal with the (now mainly debunked) problem of food deserts.

So what can be done if both nudgy policies and better economic situations don't lead individuals to make the choices that food policymakers and activists want them to make? Restrict choice!

Two years ago, as a lengthy New York Times piece last week detailed, Chile did just that, enacting pervasive and intrusive anti-obesity regulations, including bans on marketing foods to children, removing junk food from schools, adopting mandatory packaged-food nutrition warnings, and sugar taxes.

How's that working? As the Times piece notes, "Obesity rates in Chile have yet to fall."

This mimics what's happened in the United States, where despite eight years of sweeping policy changes designed to cut obesity, many enacted with the support of then-First Lady Michelle Obama, obesity rates continued to rise.

Several years ago, I wrote a column here in which I blasted the negative results produced by efforts to socially engineer our food choices. For these failed efforts, it appears there's no end in sight.

NEXT: Don't Feed President Troll

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  1. So what can be done if both nudgy policies and better economic situations don’t lead individuals to make the choices that food policymakers and activists want them to make? Restrict choice!

    Finally, someone with the balls to remove food options that the unwashed masses have no business choosing.

    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…

      1. And yet you still do not how to choose food properly.

  2. Half of the Feds are screwing up so bad that the other half are conducting investigations.

    The Feds are spying on all of us, yet when someone is reported to them in time to stop a mass murder, they drop the ball.

    The national debt is $21 trillion.

    Yet our betters in the Federal Govt are worried about us eating less than optimally healthy food. Uncle Sam is nothing if not ambitious.

    1. Right there is why I can’t comprehend statists. I get why those in power desire more power, but I mean the average joe, on the right or left, who wants more government.

      Philosophically, I want to be left alone, but I can at least understand why some people would want government to step in and help sometimes, much like a parent helps a child.

      But the government sucks at it. They have the reverse Midas touch, where everything they touch turns to (super expensive) garbage.

      1. Which is why statists continue to pursue policies where there is no ability to determine the affect the policy has on the outcome – terrorism, climate change, food labeling, net neutrality, health insurance, and on and on.

        No one can say whether what was done made things better or worse in a way that convinces the voting public.

        I often wonder if as libertarians we’d be well served by pushing some variant of the “First do no harm” credo as a ruling principle for all levels of government.

        1. “First do no harm,” would certainly be nice, but I’m sure the definition of “harm” can be wiggled in any way desired. I think a lot of people would also give the government a Good Samaritan pass for their harmful behavior.

          “Oh well, we knew they were going to screw it up because they always screw it up, but they tried their best. The country’s a dumpster fire, but it’s not the politician’s fault! They are completely benevolent, altruistic civil servants!”

          We hold our politicians to the same standards as the average person on the street trying to give first aid to a guy missing a leg. They can be any level of incompetent without repercussion.

      2. And those statists continue in their belief that capitalism gives horrible people too much control over us — yet those same horrible people are the pool from which we pull our politicians. I guess a government ID suddenly washes the sins away.

      3. People instinctively know that reducing government is a far harder task than getting benefits from government. And people have zero interest in reducing government (and thus losing benefits) when everybody else is still on the gravy train.

        It’s not just money, as in SS or Medicare, it’s everything — why should a barber make it easier for new barbers to compete with him after all the effort he put into getting that damned license? Why should a taxi driver not fight Uber and Lyft after all the money he had to spend on that medallion and the constant hassles he has to put up with to keep his license?

        I believe that if you were to guarantee barbers a year or two of pay in exchange for throwing out all barber licensing, or pay taxi drivers the market value of their medallions in exchange for dropping all taxi licensing, they would be happy as clams at high tide. But absent that, why should they not fight loosening government restrictions when they had to jump through hoops without any help?

        1. My idea (pre-Uber) was to split medallions 2- or 3-for-1. For every taxi medallion you held, you’d get 1 or 2 more. How could they object, when they could sell them to reap a benefit from their new competition?

      4. 1. Most people either pay no taxes or relatively little for what they see themselves getting from the government. They don’t see the fact that their incomes would be higher if govt didn’t control 40-50% of GDP (when you add up direct govt spending and heavily regulated “private” industry), distorting and parasiting the marketplace.

        2. Fear of freedom — having the govt make choices for you means you’re not responsible for the consequences.

        1. “Most people either pay no taxes or relatively little for what they see themselves getting from the government.”

          Since the govt borrows about half of what it spends, this is true for almost everybody.

          1. You’ve been told a million times to stop exaggerating. Federal debt = $1T, and states and local governments can’t borrow, so that’s the borrowing total. federal, state, and local governments spend about $8T a year.

            1/8, not 1/2.

            1. “states and local governments can’t borrow”

              Yes they can.


              1. Plus, they can simply not fully fund teachers, firemen, policemen, and other public employee’s pensions. They are literally borrowing from future generations so that they don’t piss-off current tax payers as badly as the reality of a pay-as-you-go budget would require.

    2. “The national debt is $21 trillion.”

      To simultaneously relieve the stress in our healthcare system and pay down the debt, I recommend a nationwide program of organ harvesting progressives. The proceeds from the organ sales can be used to pay down the debt. Further, the reduction in the population will mean less people competing for medical resources. And as progressives favor wealth redistribution, we can take theirs anr put it to good use, like building the border wall.

      It’s win win for everyone!

      1. You’re one, hard-ass mofo, Elias. Keep up the good work!

      2. If only. Guarantee me some young greenie health nut’s organs and I can continue on the self-destructive (fun) path I had to give up so many years ago.

  3. Maybe because government is bad at giving food advice. Are carbs bad or good? Which food pyramid should be used as a guide? Is fat bad or good? Is coffee good for us this month or bad? What about red wine?

    1. They’re terrible at much more than food advice. Hello, TSA? 21 trillion in debt? Still fighting the same war after 17 years? The War on Drugs? I could go on all day.

      People think that if they can just get the “correct” group of idiots in there, it will work. Instead they need to just remove 99% if its responsibilities.

      1. *sigh*
        At some point, getting the “correct idiots” into those lucrative, secure, hi-pension jobs doing things that aren’t going to work and positions at agencies whose efforts will never amount to more than a few sound-bites and bad statistics for Congressmen…IS the whole idea behind the effort.

    2. That would require the government treat us as individuals, and that’s antithetical to the whole role of big government.

      1. Yes, government is the ultimate batch processor. Government with individually tailored actions is no longer government. It’s an oxymoron.

        1. The government is actually more like a blender. No matter how much great stuff you put in the blender, one speck of crap, and when you turn it on all of it is crap.

          This is why government sucks so bad. It can’t ever be good at anything, because government attracts crap and it can’t be fully excluded.

          Ergo, government is crap.

    3. Not only that, but federal food policy is invariably one-size-fits-all, and we aren’t. Different people have different needs. Over a lifetime the same people will have different needs, depending on where they live, age, activity level, health issues, and a bunch of other reasons.

      When people move from up north, down here to Texas, we have to teach them to drink more water.

      1. Yep, and this is e same government that pushed that horribly flawed ‘food pyramid’ for decades. Even long after it was discredited.

        1. You and LarryA are both soooo verrry correct. Not long ago, they were telling us that eggs were bad for us. How can that be (?) when eggs are an essential part of (1) Tapioca pudding and (2) Omelettes with chili on top, both foods that Avery and I cannot live without.

          LarryA is very insightful. For instance, when you’re riding in the Tour de France, you can eat all the shit you want, and NONE of it is bad for you. Whereas, when you’re watching soap operas 24/7, you’d better be eating nothing but watermelon 24/7.

  4. ‘Putin’s chef’ among Russians indicted by Mueller…..r-53158590

    OMG – no wonder government want to protect us from some food.

    Now it all makes sense.

    Putin’s chef came up with special recipe that when added to American’s favorite food like apple pie, cheeseburgers, and delicious deep dish pizza will brain wash the peoples to follow Putin’s orders.

    1. “Emergency! Everybody to get off street!”

      (If you recognize the reference, you’re, like, old.)

      1. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

        Is this it comrade?

        1. Yes, Grandpa.

      2. The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!

        Okay, I’m like old.

        1. …and slow. Curse you Rockabilly!

  5. The government has zero legitimate interest in food other than regulations on basic food safety. Even that is debatable.

  6. At the risk of being banned again by Reason – I agree completely. It would be better for government to stop subsidizing unhealthy food, like HFCS. (Which makes unhealthy processed food cheaper.)

    1. The subsidies don’t make it cheaper. There’s a sugar tariff which makes domestic corn sugar economically viable as a substitute, but it’s more expensive generally.

      1. Exactly, this is also why most candy is imported. We tariff sugar, but not candy, so imported candy is made with cheap sugar and domestic candy is made with expensive sugar. The labor content of the candy is actually pretty low.

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    1. Translation: 8 hrs every day of the week for $5260 a month living in a sweatshop. No thanks.

      1. Lots of money to be made sucking middle aged men’s dicks down by the bus station. Should be able to average two dicks an hour. So that’s probably $50-80 per hour depending on local economic variables.

        It appears to work well for Tony. Since he still has plenty of spare time to shit his leftist drivel here.

        1. The wage has gone down with the influx of illegals giving the ‘jobs Americans won’t do.

        2. Wow, I knew that Tony sucked … but had no idea that was how he hones his impressive skills!

          Just remember, the laws of physics apply …. for every suck there has to be a blow!

  8. Anybody else out there suddenly have a craving for burgers, onion rings, and beer? Thank god the house is empty this weekend.

  9. I personally support the mandatory calorie labeling, because it gives me an idea of the portion size. Several times in the past I’ve gone to a new restaurant and ordered something whose menu description seems delicious, only to be disappointed when they bring it out and it’s served on a plate the size of a potato chip.

    It’s also good for poor people to be able to see which item has the most calories per dollar.

    1. It’s also good for poor people to be able to see which item has the most calories per dollar.

      I totally do this. McDonalds dollar menu. 1000 calories for $3.

  10. The US gov’s advice on how to eat IS the problem with obesity, pre-diabetes, diabetes, and all the other metabolic diseases in the US. The low fat/high carb diet is a killer for most people unless one is very careful about the types of carbs one eats.

    1. Baloney. Since the Stone Age, most people in the world have eaten a low fat/high carb diet and obesity is the last thing they have had to worry about.

      The conditions you mention are a result of consuming more calories than one expends. Everything else is a footnote. The low-carb fad is going to pass like the others have.

      1. So Paleo Diet is low fat and high carb?

        1. Paleo is supposedly reflective of the Stone Age diet of hunter-gatherer humans. It’s also an unsustainable scam.

          1. It’s a pre-stone age diet in fact: The theory being that many of humanities health problems only began when we transitioned from hunter-gatherer (fresh meat, berries etc) to agrarian (wheat, corn, rice etc.)

            This is proven by the insanely long, happy, and healthy lives people had pre-stone age, and our ridiculously short lives now!

            1. Well, statistically, nothing protects you from heart attack, stroke, and cancer as well as getting eaten by a mountain lion.

              1. But what about the poor mountain lions, now eating chubby humans and too much fat?

          2. Citation needed, since common sense says you are blowing smoke.

      2. Prior to the widespread invention of agriculture something like 6,000-8,000 years ago, mankind was a collection of hunter-gatherer tribes. They are what you could pick off the ground, bushes and trees, and what you could kill. In most cases, this resulted in a diet high in meat. Animal fat, and largely fibrous fruits and vegetables. There was no refined sugar, little starch, and no grains.

        There was also processed food, which is a big problem today. Also, most people don’t handle combining carbs, especially starches, and fat in quantity, especially as they get older. Until very recently, most people didn’t live long enough for that to be a big problem. Now we do. Much in the same way diabetes rates are up because more people are living long enough to develop diabetes.

        The bottom line is that people are living long enough to grow old in large percentages and our diet has changed significantly, while our biology has not.

        1. Not going to argue about longer lifespan being a cursed gift in some ways. Though the average age of developing type 2 diabetes, for example, is also decreasing, so it’s not just longevity.

          However, a simple calorie surplus is (a) present and increasing in first world populations, and (b) sufficient to explain increases in all the metabolic problems listed. Occam would dictate leaving the carb vs fat dogma out of it.

    2. I agree with that. These regulations have a subtle, pernicious effect of making us distrust our judgment and instinct. They encourage decisions based on numbers instead of asking, “Am I hungry?” and “What am I craving?”

      1. No, these meaningless regulations just clutter up the menu, making it harder to read. Then people just order ‘the usual’ and get on with the part of their lives the government hasn’t taken over yet.

  11. Why don’t people just do what the law wants them to do?

    One supposes they’re just too busy texting while driving.

  12. ” rather than spending the additional money on healthier foods.”

    Healthy eating is cheap if you know how to cook.

    Cooking lessons, not cash!

  13. But it’s called the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act. It *must* be common-sensical, right?

      1. You and me both. I liked his songs on the yootoobs.

    1. Shikha’s brother?

  14. Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act,

    I hate when they do this shit.

    1. I prefer to have uncommon sense. Just as I benefit from uncommon physical strength, intellect, and durability.

      Who the fuck wants to be common?

    1. That dude was playing well above the rim

    2. Maybe she was fucking the kid to groom him for mar threesomes, so he and her husband could dp and/ or dpp her. Maybe even double anal.

      1. Must … not … Google … double … anal …

      2. Must … not … Google … double … anal …

    3. And watch, she gets a slap on the wrist because vagina.

      Ironically if she had gotten pregnant, the rape victim would be required to pay child support to the rapist for 18 years. That’s how fucked up the laws are.

  15. OT: Elizabeth Taylor: Greer High School Teacher Accused of Sex With Student

    A track coach and biology teacher who got married in August 2017 in South Carolina was allegedly caught at the side of the road in a state of undress with a student. WSPA reports that Elizabeth Heaton Taylor, 27, was found with the student by a Greenville County Sheriff’s deputy on the evening of February 15 on Holland Road in the town of Simpsonville, about 10 miles south east of Greenville. The pair were in Taylor’s white Ford Explorer. The station’s report says that Taylor gave authorities a fake name but later told the deputies that she and the student had sex on two separate occasions.

    My goodness.

    1. Where were these teachers when I was in school?

      1. With the cool students?

    1. How is that off topic?

  16. Although there may be bad diets, there’s no such thing as bad foods, unless they’re actually poison.

    But the biggest factor in gov’t making food expensive isn’t these picayune taxes, it’s ag policy generally, which always winds up chasing its tail. In many countries there are policies geared simultaneously toward raising & lowering the price of food, trying to benefit both the farmers & the consumers. I guess they think they can squeeze it from the middle somehow.

  17. Yes, people can — fully informed by properly crafted (whatever that means) labeling — make food choices. This seems a fairly libertarian approach though full disclosure might have limited effects.

    I still don’t like “Obamacare,” a law that was a result of a Senate bill somewhat tweaked by a shorter House amendment. People don’t have “LBJ-Care” or “FDR Security.”

  18. I like the menu calorie labels because they allow me to pick the choice that has the highest calories per dollar.

    If I look at the labels for Mac Jr., Big Mac, and Grand Mac, I can see that the Grand Mac is highest, Mac Jr. is next, and Big Mac is the lowest calories per dollar.

    1. And then you buy the fish sandwich?

      1. Actually, I buy the cheeseburger.

        Cheeseburger at 300 calories for $1.00 vs Grand Mac at 860 calories for $4.99. For $5.00 I can get 1500 calories.

    2. Do you pick your hookers that way too?

      1. Galleries, however, rather than calories.

      2. I don’t usually eat hookers, and they don’t come with calorie labels.

    3. I like the Mac Jr. Much easier to lick the sauce off a wrapper than off the inside of a box.

      1. “Off the inside of a box…”
        Speaking of hookers

  19. One of the best uses of government is to ensure that people have the information they need to make good decisions. It’s a much better activity for the government than making decisions for us.

    1. One of the best uses of government is to ensure that people have the information they need to make good decisions.

      One of the best uses of the internet is to enable people to search for and analyze the information they need to make good decisions.

    2. They are making decisions for us — the decision that we must pay for calorie counts to be measured and menus to be labeled. That shit ain’t free.

      1. The cost is trivial for the sorts of companies this requirement applies to.

        1. PaulTheBeav|2.18.18 @ 5:41AM|#
          “The cost is trivial for the sorts of companies this requirement applies to.”

          Then YOU pay it.
          YOU do not get to choose what costs are ‘trivial’ for anyone but yourself.

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  21. Shouldn’t the libertarian view be you can eat what you want, but you are on your own to deal with the consequences of any chronic disease that causes, you are not the government and other citizens responsibility? In other words if you don’t want the government telling you what to eat, then you shouldn’t want the government paying for your healthcare.

    1. That is the Libertarian view.
      However, at this time, the government sticks a gun to your head and takes around 16.5% of your wages for (allegedly) future health care and retirement and possible disability events. Which pretty much eliminates buying any insurance that might be what you would choose for yourself if the gun was gone. Then they tell you what kind of health insurance you must buy if you “choose” to purchase health insurance. (Because it is very important that women over 65 have good maternity coverage, and solid prostate care available)
      So yeah, when individuals can purchase insurance for themselves in a market free from federal dictates of policy content, and when there are no 45 to 50 years of theft going on, we can all pay for our own choices.

  22. Let the puns begin!

    “Scientists have created the first ever human-sheep hybrids”…..brids.html

  23. Other than not smoking, it’s all heredity.

  24. OT:
    “Universities rush to develop computer science ethics courses”
    “The idea is to train the next generation of technologists and policymakers to consider the ramifications of innovations ? like autonomous weapons or self-driving cars ? before those products go on sale.
    “Technology is not neutral,” said Sahami, who formerly worked at Google as a senior research scientist. “The choices that get made in building technology then have social ramifications.”

    Oh, goody! A “studies” class for geeks, and I promise within the first year, there will be guidelines to ‘avoid taking jobs from people’.
    Nannies; if the world had the same number of productive people as it has nannies, we’d be far better off.

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  26. All businesses should put up a cheap white board stating that the calorie count varies from zero to 5,000 depending on what you order, and what condiments are chosen.
    Zero calories for a glass of water, 5,000 for anything else with way too many condiments.

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