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.