So much for the idea that information is the key to better choices: a recent study on New York City’s fast-food labeling law found that providing calorie counts to fast food customers did nothing to improve diets. From The Oregonian:
The study compared customer orders before and after New York City adopted its pioneering law on posting calories and found a disappointing surprise: People eating at four fast-food chains in poorer neighborhoods of New York where there are high rates of obesity ordered more calories after the labeling law went into effect.
The original journal article reveals an additional tidbit:
We found that 27.7 percentwho saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influencedtheir choices. However, we did not detect a change in caloriespurchased after the introduction of calorie labeling.
So over a quarter of the people said that the new calorie labels improved their food choices—yet the researchers found absolutely no evidence to back this up.
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Unfortunately, other researchers have found similar results. As we’ve already noted, adding a healthy option to a menu can actually make diners more likely to pick a less healthy item on a menu. In the same vein, some anti-smoking campaigners now argue that health warnings on cigarette packages have become virtually meaningless, having no real effect on people’s intentions to quit smoking.
I’m not sure what this says about labeling efforts more generally. Can, say, a CO2 label actually induce climate-friendly consumer choices—or are we just fooling ourselves? Should we focus our research on designing more effective labels—or can humans simply learn to ignore anything, no matter how startlingly presented?
I’m sure that there are no simple answers here. But there’s one label that really does seem to have an effect on our choices: the price tag. Tobacco researchers, for example, find that tobacco taxes have a huge impact on smoking rates. So maybe, instead of trying to make labels tell the truth, we should try to make sure that prices themselves tell the truth. If we’re really concerned about encouraging healthier choices, making sure that the price tag reflects the true cost of an unhealthy choice may be the most effective labeling change we can make.
Mississippi Legislature2008 Regular SessionHouse Bill 282House Calendar | Senate Calendar | Main MenuAdditional Information | All Versions Current Bill Text: | Description: Food establishments; prohibit from serving food to any person who is obese.Background Information: Disposition: Active Deadline: General Bill/Constitutional Amendment Revenue: No Vote type required: Majority Effective date: July 1, 2008History of Actions: 1 01/25 (H) Referred To Public Health and Human Services;Judiciary B—– Additional Information —–House Committee: Public Health and Human Services*, Judiciary BPrincipal Author: MayhallAdditional Authors: Read, ShowsTitle: AN ACT TO PROHIBIT CERTAIN FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS FROM SERVING FOOD TO ANY PERSON WHO IS OBESE, BASED ON CRITERIA PRESCRIBED BY THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH; TO DIRECT THE DEPARTMENT TO PREPARE WRITTEN MATERIALS THAT DESCRIBE AND EXPLAIN THE CRITERIA FOR DETERMINING WHETHER A PERSON IS OBESE AND TO PROVIDE THOSE MATERIALS TO THE FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS; TO DIRECT THE DEPARTMENT TO MONITOR THE FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS FOR COMPLIANCE WITH THE PROVISIONS OF THIS ACT; AND FOR RELATED PURPOSES.—– Bill Text for All Versions —- | As Introduced (Current)Information pertaining to this measure was last updated on 01/29/2008 at 11:24End Of Document
This study was done in “low income minority neighborhoods” with a high density of fast food restaurants. If a person has less income to devote to food, they will often choose the least expensive option. This study may have had more merit if it was replicated in areas of New York that have varying levels of disposable income to spend on food. While the effect of the labeling is interesting, I think it is somewhat misleading to represent this study in a way that infers it applies all income levels.