Does Menu Labeling Trigger Consumption?
Prompted by the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and other weight related health issues, menu and calorie labeling was touted as the “cure.” Since its introduction and implementation in New York City in July 2008, various cities and states across the country have adopted the same practice. New York University and Yale University collaborated on a study to measure its effects. The results, recently published in the October web issue of Health Affairs might surprise you.
The study measured behavior of adults visiting fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority New York communities. A similar population in Newark, New Jersey, which currently does not have calorie posting laws, was used as the control. The locations were selected due to the high proportion of obesity and diabetes found in these populations, thus important groups to understand when forming health policy interventions.
Researchers were shocked; a mere 27% actually noticed menu labels and intended to purchase less, 88% (of the same subgroup) reported eating fewer calories; but when fast-food receipts were collected and compared, subjects purchased on average 20 calories more!
Although the data proved statistically insignificant, menu labeling in theory was supposed to influence people to make smart, lower calorie choices. This is clearly not the case in the at-risk population studied, and it seems the labeling laws influenced a sort of reverse psychology. In fact, it appears that calorie knowledge is at such a low level, that once exposed to calorie counts, customers are pleasantly surprised how ‘little’ that Big Mac or Whopper for example really does contain and so ‘supersizing’ doesn’t seem so bad.
Maybe it’s too soon to truly evaluate the effects of menu labeling, as baseline data was compared with data collected just a mere four weeks after implementation. It is well known by psychologists that repeat exposure is necessary for behavior change, and although the majority of the target population frequently visits fast-food restaurants, maybe the study’s results would have changed had researchers waited at least a few months after implementation. However, the truth is that just posting the calories without some benchmark of how many calories a day should be consumed is foolhardy.
As more and more jurisdictions roll out public health policy surrounding nutrition, they must realize that calorie labeling cannot function as an island. There is not one golden ticket that is going to set us free from the growing problem. Previous research highlights that behavior change in vulnerable populations needs to focus on the root causes of behavior. This coupled with a multifaceted intervention seems necessary to greatly reduce obesity.
At The Lempert Report, we believe a good first step is to produce foods that actually taste like food. The key is to eat less: less calories, less saturated fats and cholesterol, less sodium, and less sugar. The only way this will happen is if smaller portions both taste great and satisfy.