Yesterday was the last day for the public to weigh-in on the federal government’s proposed menu and vending machine nutrition-labeling requirements, and as someone with libertarian leanings, I used to be pretty opposed to any kind of mandatory nutrition labeling. But these days I’m definitely a proponent, and here’s why.
In the past I’ve been worried about the burden it would place on small businesses, and swayed by research showing calorie labeling “doesn’t work.” But funnily enough, I had my ‘aha!’ moment came a few years back when I was waiting for a flight in LaGuardia airport.
Airport terminals are not exactly a bastion of healthy-eating options, and I decided a fruit smoothie from some chain or other (I can’t remember which it was) was probably my best bet. To my surprise, there wasn’t a single smoothie on the menu board under about 800 calories! I was glad to have that information, opted out of a smoothie purchase and began to re-think my views on mandatory calorie posting.
There are easy ways to get around the small-biz burden, such as exempting restaurants with fewer than 15 locations, as New York City does (and the proposed federal requirements raise the number to 20 locations). As for whether or not restaurant calorie labeling “works”—well, that depends on just how we define their success. Some research has shown that for those who would normally choose high-cal or unhealthy restaurant options, having all the nutritional data doesn’t make much difference. I think that’s interesting, and there’s room for plenty more research there as to why this is the case. But just because calorie posting doesn’t make your average Big Mac consumer switch to a bag of apples and a side salad doesn’t mean the whole thing’s a bust. What about the benefits to health-conscious consumers who genuinely try to make the ‘best’ choices when eating out? These are the folks (myself included) who may reap the most benefits from having more readily-accessible restaurant nutrition data.
“Without explicit calorie counts, health-conscious eaters are susceptible to the averaging bias, which can make them think that a hamburger lunch is healthier when it comes with a side of broccoli (even though the combination has more calories),” writes Peter Smith at GOOD.
And the health halo can make “organic” or “trans-fat free” chips and cookies sound healthier than snacks that don’t make these claims. As Pierre Chandon, a behavior economist at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, told me, “Where people are the most knowledgeable about food, they are the most biased. It’s a paradox. Those people on diets, the ones who pay the most attention, and are the most knowledgeable also tend to be the most influenced by these biases.”
Let us know what you think in the comments!
Photo via CSPI.