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New Study Furthers Debate Over Obamacare’s Calorie Labeling Law

| Monday July 29th, 2013 | 2 Comments

Mcdonalds mealWhen was the last time you went to a fast food restaurant and decided what to eat based on calorie information? If you have hard time remembering, apparently you’re not alone.

Huffington Post reports researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) found that when participants were given calorie guidance, such as recommended calories per meal or per day before eating at McDonald’s, where calorie labeling is already available, they consumed no fewer calories than if they were given no calorie advice at all.

This research can be added to a growing body of evidence that question the impact of calorie labeling in restaurants, which some restaurants have already put in place and all others (if they have more than 20 locations) will need to add in next year or so to meet Obamacare’s requirements.

“Most people are not going in and doing very specific math to figure out how many calories for each meal they should have. They are focusing on the entree only or deciding if they eat more now, they will eat less later,” explains Prof. Julie Downs of CMU who led the study.

But is this really the case? Does menu labeling really have no impact on consumer behavior?

First, let’s look at the CMU study. The researchers wanted to explore the potential interaction between pre-existing menu labeling and the addition of recommended calorie intake information. In other words, they were wondering if people would choose lower-calorie items after they were given some more information to help put the calorie counts they see on the menu in context.

The research team analyzed the purchase behaviors of 1,121 adult lunchtime diners at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York. Participants were divided into three groups that received different information before entering McDonald’s: The first group received recommended daily calorie intake (2,000 calories for women or 2,400 calories for men), the second group received recommended per-meal calorie intake (650 calories for women or 800 calories for men) and the third group didn’t receive any information.

The results? Researchers found, according to Huffington Post, that “providing calorie recommendation benchmarks – such as calories per day or calories per meal – did not reduce calories purchased, nor did it appear to help participants to better use the calorie information posted on menus.” In fact, the researchers reported in the study, “we found some evidence that recommendations may even have promoted purchase of higher-calorie items.”

These results don’t come as a total surprise. In the last couple of years there have been a few other studies suggesting similar evidence of the very little impact menu labeling has on consumer behavior. For example, researchers found that an effort in King County, Washington, to add nutrition facts labeling to fast food menus had no effect on consumer behavior in its first year. Another study from New York University showed in 2011 that teens didn’t necessarily buy fewer calories even if they saw menu calorie counts.

The problem with giving people nutritional information and relying on them to use that information to make wise choices, explains behavioral economist Dan Ariely, is that “traditionally, such interventions are more successful at changing attitudes than actual behaviors, and when it comes to health — attitudes and behaviors don’t always go hand-in-hand.”

Ariely makes a good point, and if you add this logic to the latest study, as well as the others mentioned above, you might start wondering if this Obamacare provision makes sense at all given our behavioral flaws as well as the difficulties it might cause some businesses.

Apparently, the answer might be that this provision does make sense after all. Only one month ago the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published a research review summarizing new information published in 2008-2012 on the impact of menu labeling on consumer behavior. This is a comprehensive outlook, reviewing dozens of studies and, therefore, providing a much better understanding of the body of evidence compared to looking just at couple of random studies.

The results show a complex reality, but certainly indicate that menu labeling is not meaningless. “The review finds that the evidence about the impact of menu labeling on calories purchased or menu items selected is mixed,” the authors write. They go on to say that the impact of menu labeling may have a greater effect on women than men, on higher calorie items, and among certain types of restaurant chains

The review also reports that emerging evidence suggests that menu labeling does not impact revenue (there’s evidence lower-calorie items drive sales up for many chain restaurants, but it might not be related to labeling), and could have positive effects on the reformulation of menu items and other aspects of the restaurant environment, such as reduction in promotion of less healthy foods.

This last point can make the calorie labeling requirement a game changer. While we (especially men) might not use the labeling that often in our decision making process on what to buy in restaurants, it can drive changes in restaurants, from promoting healthy items to reducing the size of some dishes to changing items’ formulations in order to make them healthier.

These changes will eventually be reflected in the choices consumers make, which means that while calorie labeling will not directly help us to make better choices, it will help us do so indirectly through the restaurants’ choice editing. In the end, it’s a win-win for everyone.

[Image credit: Matt McGee, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • jimadcock

    After reading McD’s calorie counts, I have decided not to eat at McD’s. But that fact isn’t going to show in any statistics.

  • Pizza man

    I have been in the restaurant business for 38 years. Government mandates only succeed in driving up costs, starting with the company and then eventually the consumer. Consumer demand motivates changes in business including in this regard. The move to providing healthier menu options began years before Obamacare with its menu labeling mandates due to customer preferences. The labeling requirements are worthless as seen in every study done. However for a medium sized company such as ours, it will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply and keep current/accurate.