Calorie labelling on menus

By Martin Zibauer »Martin Zibauer

October 8th, 2009

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In n out burger

There were a lot of bytes being served in the American blogosphere over the last few days about New York City’s menu-labelling requirements for fast-food restaurants and an early study suggesting that when menus note calories, people actually choose to eat slightly more of them. As Ryan Sager notes, the study has limitations:

1) It was conducted rather early in the program. Perhaps people will adjust slowly to the new labeling.

2) It was conducted at fast food restaurants. Meaning: It doesn’t deal with the question of whether the labeling is sending people to other restaurants, where the calorie counts aren’t posted. And, if it is, are they making better or worse food choices at these new establishments?

3) It dealt with the poor and minorities. Perhaps the labeling is working super-awesomely for rich white folks. (Of course, it’s not rich white folks who have an obesity problem, generally speaking.)

Based on the number of theories being presented by bloggers and their commenters (plus actual researchers), no one seems to really understand what motivates food choices.

Megan McArdle at The Atlantic suggests it may be as simple as people rewarding themselves for a low-cal choice with an excessively high-cal treat, or just being bad at adding up the numbers. Commenters on her blog have several other ideas. One thinks people overestimate calories in fast food (I’m fairly sure I’ve seen other studies showing the opposite) so order more when they see items that are less fattening than they expected. Or, it’s a conspiracy: the restaurants, guided by consultants, put some extra-calorific items on the menus. Those who notice the numbers  feel good about picking anything but the high-cal red herrings.

From another of McArdle’s commenters:

When I was younger, thinner, and poorer, I reacted to calorie information as follows: the more calories per dollar the better! I wanted taste and nutrition, but most of all, I wanted to be filled up in exchange for my limited food dollars.

In my own starving-student days, quantity often did matter more than quality. I’d choose something cheap and filling at a restaurant so I didn’t have to eat much for my next meal. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine low-income patrons making the same calculation at McDonalds.

At The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer points to research that calories themselves give us pleasure (independent of how they taste) so he wonders if calorie counts just help people select the most pleasure-giving food. I’m not sure I buy this: if our brains have a built-in calorie reward system, wouldn’t we already pick the most pleasurable food without the labels? Why do I sometimes really crave a good low-cal salad and nothing else?

Personally, I like menu labelling. Whether I use it to make healthier decisions, or choose to get the most calorie bang for my buck, the information is useful to me.

photo credit: Tamsin Slater

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Martin Zibauer