I’m a big fan of places in the US where stores display calorie counts with their menus. I always look at them before deciding what to buy, and will often buy something different to my preference, once I know its calorie count.
However it seems I am a minority. Emily Oster at 538 writes:
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping rules that will require extensive calorie labeling nationwide. This includes on menus at chain restaurants, movie theaters, bakeries, coffee shops and vending machines. This change has been hailed by legislators and food-policy experts as a landmark in fighting obesity.
But will it work? The evidence I pulled together above isn’t conclusive. …
What does this mean for the success of the FDA labeling effort? It seems plausible that some subset of individuals at some restaurant locations will decrease their calorie intake. In fact, this seems almost certain. Every time I bring up calorie labeling with people I work with, someone will describe how the practice changed their behavior. One colleague realized that her habit of purchasing muffins rather than croissants to save calories was a waste — croissants have fewer calories than muffins.
On the other hand, if the idea is that these changes will drastically affect obesity in low-income populations eating at fast-food chains, the evidence doesn’t support this hope.
So it will be of benefit to some people like me, who are already motivated to think about the health impact of what I eat, but may have little impact on those most in need.
A supporter of calorie labeling will ask, “What is the downside?” Even if only a small fraction of people respond by decreasing their calories, there is no loss to those who did not change. So, why worry about it? This ignores the obvious cost to restaurants of calculating the calories in their products and of changing their menus. A grocery-store industry trade group estimated the cost of compliance with calorie-labeling rules could initially amount to $1 billion. The change also ignores the possible psychic costs to people.
Even if I am still going to eat a muffin after I learn that there are 520 calories in it, I may feel worse about doing so. If the actual impact of calorie labeling is to encourage only a few people to eat fewer calories but to make many more people feel worse about themselves, it seems less than obvious that it is a welfare-improving idea.
I’d like to see more stores in NZ do calorie labelling, but I don’t think there is a case for it to be mandatory – based on the evidence to date.