Calorie Counts are a Dud

September 12th, 2011 at 1:30 pm | 35 Comments |

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September is National Childhood Obesity Month, mind and the President marked the occasion with a proclamation calling on all Americans to “take action by learning about and engaging in activities that promote healthy eating and greater physical activity by all our Nation’s children.”

Obesity is a major issue; a third of American children and two thirds of adults are obese or overweight. So we must ask: how to fight it? For many policy-makers, the answer is better labeling. But is that enough?

Calorie labeling, whereby restaurants post the calorie contents of their menu items, has become a cause de jour in the public health community. Bloomberg’s New York City was an early experimenter. As is so often the case with the war on obesity, so goes the Big Apple, so goes America. The idea is contained in the sweeping health reform bill passed last year, with full implementation pending. (Britain is also experimenting with a voluntary version of the policy.)

For the public health community, calorie labeling fits with a larger view of obesity. Call it the McVictim Syndrome – that greedy corporations are taking advantage of Americans, conning them into buying unhealthy foods. Inform the masses, and they will slim down, or at least cut down on the junk food.

There’s only one problem:  according to a slew of studies, calorie labeling seems to be a public-policy dud.

Consider a quick review of the literature.

October 2009. Researchers from Yale and the NYU School of Medicine publish a study in Health Affairs they tout as a “first look” at the impact of calorie counts in New York City. Result: “we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling.”

August 2010. Researchers from Stanford University and the National Bureau of Economic Research review sales data for New York City Starbucks. They conclude: “food calories per transaction fell by 14% (equal to 14 calories per transaction on average)” and beverage calories “did not substantially change” for a net calorie drop of just 6 percent per transaction.

January 2011. In the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers from Duke – NUS Medical School tracked buying decisions in Taco Time franchises after a Washington State county passed a mandatory calorie posting law. They find: “No impact of the regulation on purchasing behavior was found. Trends in transactions and calories per transaction did not vary between control and intervention locations after the law was enacted.”

February 2011. The lead author of the first NYU study expanded on those results for the International Journal of Obesity, focusing on key groups: teens, parents and children in low-income neighborhoods. “We found no statistically significant differences in calories purchased before and after labeling.”

Four studies. Three failing grades and one marginal pass.

There has been just one hold out so far: New York City.

In a 2009 conference presentation, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that the law helped customers cut their consumption by an average 12.3% in lunches purchased at New York fast food restaurants.

But, with better collection of data and comparison, it seems that even New York data doesn’t support the New York initiative.

This summer, a paper published in the British Medical Journal suggests that calorie labeling doesn’t do much of anything.

Surveys were conducted by the New York for the months before and after the labeling took effect. The study’s novelty was its scope: researchers looked at a cross-section of all fast-food chains in New York City, and collected receipts from around 15,000 people.

And the results? Average calories bought showed no change. In fact, only about one in seven people claimed to even use the calorie information. Armed with information, people’s decisions were mixed: at McDonald’s they seemed to pick a bit better, but actually increased consumption of higher-cal foods at Subway.

Calorie labeling is popular among policy makers but it just doesn’t seem to work out. Frankly, that’s not exactly surprising – does anyone really order, say, a Big Mac with an extra large fries and assume it to be a healthful meal?

The President’s biggest anti-obesity initiative, in other words, will not work and issuing proclamations will not help. The President should send his advisors back to the drawing board.

Recent Posts by David Gratzer

35 Comments so far ↓

  • Slide

    “This summer, a paper published in the British Medical Journal suggests that calorie labeling doesn’t do much of anything.”


    Actually the study you reported said the following:

    Data according to each restaurant revealed significant reductions in several of the major chains.

    McDonalds – decrease in average calorie intake by 5.3%
    Au Bon Pain – decrease in average calorie intake by 14.4%
    KFC – decrease in average energy calorie by 6.4%

    The Study concluded that, since the introduction of the regulations, one in six customers were relying on the calorie information provided on the labels when making their purchase. Further, these customers were making lower calorie choices.

    The results were skewed because of Subway where consumers were actually picking foods with higher calories. But it should be noted that Subway, during this period, was promoting larger portion sizes.

    I think it is way too early to say that calorie labeling is a “dud”. And don’t you think consumers have the right to know that information? Do you also object to the printing of ingredients and/or nutrition information on food items?

    • Primrose

      I agree with Slide.

      It also reinforces willpower for some of us. If we are eating at McDonalds, one can have a policy of no fries, but if you are very hungry, it’s a lot easier to keep it if you see how many calories even a small amount are. Of if your going for your occasional latte at Starbucks, knowing that their complex flavored drinks are priced calorie wise like shakes, keeps it at a coffee, or in my case an unsugared latte.

      The subway thing is weird enough to make me question why. If there as no change, that’s one thing, but picking higher calories? Something else is going on.

      not something easily ignored in the suburbs which have a dearth of quick, healthy food and and large travel time addition to errands

      • m1chae2

        I think with subway, there is the temptation to order the 12″ sandwich because of the 5$ footlong deal. Its often only a small amount more than the cost of a 6″ sandwich. Once people have the footlongs who is to say whether they eat it all at once or save half the sandwich for dinner or lunch on the next day.

    • TJ Parker

      Now this I believe. I’ve also seen Chipotle as a place where people try to max-out their calorie in-take. But in that case, I’m referring to young athletic people and not sedentary fleshblobs.

  • J.B.

    seems like you are making the case for government intervention in food menus since people are not willingly doing it or actively using the information made available to them (or more accurately 15-20% of them are, the rest aren’t).

  • Graychin

    Rome wasn’t built in a day. America’s eating habits won’t change overnight because of posting of calorie counts.

    Has all the whining from the food industry convinced Mr. Gratzer that it’s not productive to give fast-food customers calorie information? These must be more of these “job-killing” regulations we’ve been hearing so much about.

    People have to know the facts before they can act on those facts. What a stupid essay! This is what makes some “conservatives” so annoying.

    • Levedi

      As some one who does count calories and also ends up eating fast food out of sheer convenience I really appreciate the calorie info and I do use it. And yes, sometimes I totally splurge at Burger King. To a researcher, that would look like the calorie info made no difference in my choices. But the studies don’t show that I go home and do an extra hour or two of cardio to burn those calories or that I ate lightly at lunch to make space for my burger binge. So the calorie info may be making more of an impact than the studies’ methodology is prepared to measure.

  • dugfromthearth

    The entire premise of capitalism working is based on the idea that the consumer is informed and makes the best choices for themselves. I can only assume that the author is opposed to capitalism. If you want to keep the consumer in the dark, please go to China with your fellow communists and leave America for us capitalists.

  • dugfromthearth

    The entire premise of capitalism working is based on the idea that the consumer is informed and makes the best choices for themselves. I can only assume that the author is opposed to capitalism.

  • Houndentenor

    What other option is there?

    People have the right to see the nutritional information. If they choose to ignore that information, that’s their problem. Unless of course your solution is to ban certain foods or have some regulatory body decide what we can and cannot eat. I can’t believe anyone writing for a conservative blog would even suggest such a thing.

  • mlindroo

    Beats me what Gratzer is trying to say here… Of course calorie labeling is not going to solve everything! But I personally find the information helpful whenever I am trying to lose weight. In Europe, McDonald’s and Burger King display the nutrition facts of their products on the tray liner. Surely this does not hurt anybody?


  • Watusie

    Anyone who has been paying any attention at all can see that the obesity epidemic has taken off since the use of high fructose corn syrup has become ubiquitous. It is a form of calories that is unlike others. And it needs to be banned.

    • drdredel

      This is actually a fallacy, and in point of fact, a dangerous one. Corn syrup itself is not any more harmful than any other sugar. The problem is that it’s much cheaper than sugar so it is simply put into everything (adding calories where they wouldn’t otherwise be). However, as we’ve seen, there is only so much the government can do before its accused of unnecessary interference, so it has to pick its battles very wisely. This isn’t one of them. I think a much more useful approach would be to tax the hell out of things like soda. Just like cigarettes. Make sure people know what’s in there, and then make them pay, preemptively for all the health costs they’re going to accrue later.

      • Watusie

        Nonsense. HFCS – and the important part is the HF, not the CS – is metabolized in the liver. For that reason alone it should be banned.

        • arvan

          You’re off the mark here. Yes, HFCS contains fructose (along with glucose), which is metabolized in the liver.

          But regular old-fashioned sugar is made (almost) entirely of sucrose. When sucrose is digested, it breaks down into glucose and fructose. That fructose then goes on to be digested in the liver.

          There is absolutely no chemical difference between the fructose contained in HFCS and the fructose that results from our natural digestion of sugar.

          The problem with HFCS is how cheap it is. Its low cost has led to Americans consuming approximately 30% more fructose per year than we did back before its development. It doesn’t matter whether that fructose comes from HFCS or sugar. What matters is the amount of it that we’re eating.

          Cutting back or outright eliminating corn subsidies, while keeping sugar tariffs in place, would be a good start. But short of a “fat tax”, I don’t see any good way to stop people from over-indulging in sweets.

        • Primrose

          While you are right that the biggest problem with high fructose corn syrup is that it is ubiquitous and used as a preservative in products that don’t otherwise need it, more than one study has shown that metabolizes qquicker. It is true that the obesity epidemic will not be solved by substituting sugar for high fructose corn syrup, we need less sugar overall, and more honest listing of sugars. (I think we need to list it as Sugars: Cane, molasses, high fructose etc, so we have a clear sense of the amount of sugar in something.)

          However, HFCS has aggravated the condition.

  • drdredel

    First of all you’re relying on studies that have less than 2 years of data in them. Making any sort of conclusions based on such shallow research is naive.
    Secondly, as other have noted, what exactly is the downside? People have more information, and it’s not vague information, or misleading information (like fat%). A calorie is a calorie is a calorie! If you did NOTHING else in your diet but monitor and control the number of calories you took in, you would be 100% guaranteed to retain whatever weight you strove for. You may have other health problems owing to malnutrition, but obesity wouldn’t be one of them.
    Third. “McVictims”? I realize it’s fun to be an uniformed jingoist, and people who share your lack of familiarity with the subject may find this sort of derision amusing, but if you took the time to get your facts straight, you would learn that underprivileged people don’t have access to healthy foods the way that you do, and more importantly, live in catch-22 society where the “old” (people over 15) pass their eating habits on to the young, which include a ton of sugary sodas and processed crap, and of course, fast food (which is cheap, available, and yummy).
    I’m not sure what, in your mind, constitutes a “victim”. Here’s the definition of the word:

    A person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.

    These people are definitely harmed by an event or action, so, they by definition are victims.

    They aren’t victims of McDonalds UNTIL said corporation starts actively doing things that prevent these already disadvantaged people from making better choices! At that point they indeed have to start taking ownership in the problem. McDonalds doesn’t realize this yet, but in fact would make MORE money if it jumped on the bandwagon and made food with less calories.

    And lastly studies (much older than the ones you cite) show that personal responsibility isn’t a binary thing.

    I’ll cite David Eagleman for just one example…

    There’s a gene that dictates how likely you are to commit a crime. If you have this gene you’re eight times more likely to commit aggravated assault, ten times more likely to commit murder, thirteen times more likely to commit armed robbery, and forty-four times more likely to commit sexual assault! About one half of the population carries this gene, while the other half does not, making the first half much more dangerous. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes as do 98.4 percent of those on death row….
    You’ve probably heard of this genes. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you “male”.

    So much for “personal responsibility”.

  • SF_Bubble

    A couple thoughts:
    - Data is good, so I’ll give the author credit for asking the question. effectiveness MUST be part of these public policy debates and weighed against likely costs.
    - I agree that it’s too early to call calorie labeling a dud or a failure, in part because the items purchased at fast food chains is only one choice that people make over the course of a day (or week, or whatever). While I may choose a high-calorie item for lunch at McDonalds, that piece of data alone doesn’t shed light on how that information affects my choice for dinner later, or for lunch the next day. I may decide to blow my calorie wad (sorry) on lunch and have a light dinner. I’d be unable to make such a tradeoff absent that data.
    - Not having the time or expertise to parse the data in the studies cited here, I’d be further interested to know what the spreads are… Maybe some folks do consistently order lower-cal options, but could be they’re offset by people who don’t care. Averages can obscure other trends in data sets like this.
    - My personal opinion (subject to change pending new data!) is that calorie info ought to be the norm, as one tool among many, the goal of which is to keep people informed about nutrition and the connections between nutrition and overall health. It would be great if this weren’t necessary but current obesity trends suggest doing nothing is a poor choice with very high risk, and labeling represents a relatively low-cost mitigation step.

    • KBKY

      I think that these are good points. I also use calorie counts more to give me a sense of what else I can eat during the day. For instance, it won’t stop me from ordering the BigMac, but it will cause me to eat less for the other meals of the day.

      I do, however, like that the author is looking at the effectiveness of public policy decisions. Too often, I feel like we keep funding programs that we want to work or that, theoretically, should work without doing the research to see if we are getting any bang for our buck. I personally have found caloric information extremely helpful in managing my weight, but I’d be open to seeing more data as to whether or not the regulations are worth it on a societal scale.

  • Oldskool

    If you say no to large fries with a Big Mac, they give them to you anyhow. Now I want one.

  • nuser

    Remember Sarah Palin saying: Michele Obama has no right telling us what to eat? The
    Republican Party is sinking lower and lower….

  • HighCountry

    With all due respect to the author, this is one of the more inane columns I’ve read on this site. I don’t see how posting the calorie count is hurting anything, and I for one appreciate the information, and it does in fact affect my decisions when I order.

  • CautiousProgressive

    I am currently dieting and *definitely* do use the calorie information.

    Though, honestly, I use it more to choose *which* restaurant to go to, than to chose what to eat there. For example, seeing calorie counts allowed me to realize just how bad everything at McDonalds really is. Hence, I started eating at Subway where low-calorie options exist in greater abundance.

  • abc123

    People have to know the big picture first. They need to know how many calories they should have a day then keep track each day. Unless they have a scale to put calorie totals against, it’s a meaningless number.

    • Xunzi Washington

      You’re right that you should know the total number of calories you need to sustain your weight. But even without this number, daily calorie numbers are not meaningless. Anyone who eats 3,000 to 5,000 calories a day will wind up, pretty quickly, to be big as a house unless they do vigorous exercise.

      Of course, men and women differ here, but for men – if most people tried to keep their calorie count around 2,500 they would be okay. Personally, I keep mine around 2,000.

  • Primrose

    “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie! If you did NOTHING else in your diet but monitor and control the number of calories you took in, you would be 100% guaranteed to retain whatever weight you strove for. ”

    That’s not precisely true. People’s bodies adjust to sustained caloric loss and adjust the metabolism. Also, carbohydrates affect insulin levels quite differently than proteins and fat, affecting hunger and satiation issues, not to mention energy.

    The truth is we don’t really understand metabolism issues. Why are some people genetically inclined to be thin and others not? Samoans for example s

    Why does exercise have so little effect on weight?

    Seem to have a real problem with weight, and this is shown in world statistics. I very much doubt they are less dependent on fish for their diet than the thin Japanese, or use significantly more meat and dairy.

    Women tend to eat more vegetables than men, go on more diets, do more housework, and if my gym and the Tae Kwon Do studio is any indication, do more intentional exercise, yet they also tend to put on weight more easily and require greater effort to take it off.

    There are things we just don’t understand.

    I am not trying to say there is no point to eating healthily, but when we tell people that it is all calories in and calories out and they predictably fail, it aggravates the quest for better health and weight loss.

    One simply can not keep up a regime of underfeeding (something the body rebels against) without progress and success. Thus the yo-yo effect.

  • dmnolan

    Hoo boy. If you’re trying to lose weight by reading a calorie count before sucking down your next Happy Meal, I think you’ve got a long, difficult road to travel. I don’t know that going over to Subway is all that much of an improvement, white bread, “luncheon meats,” and hard cheese being some of the worst things you can put in your mouth. We’d all be better off eating foods that don’t come with labels, and spending far less time staring into a glowing screen.

  • Polifan

    Fund Physical Education programs 4-5 times a week and add a nutrition course. Kids can learn how to read labels. If they can’t pronouce it, don’t eat it. Simple.

    This is about health costs, so education is huge. Sure, it is a pain and expense for businesses but they are actually helping their country in the long run. If they get on board and market effectively, they will get more folks through their doors. Eating better now will pay dividends.

  • Steve D

    Instead of regulations, why not out-compete?

    Come up with foods that are cheaper, more nutritious and tastier than fast foods, as demonstrated by the consumers’ preferences. Don’t tell me I’ll like veggies better once I relearn my food preferences or cleanse my system, come up with something I will like better right now in a side-by-side taste test with a cheeseburger. I guarantee if you come up with a 500-calorie dish that out-sells Big Macs, McDonald’s will sell it.

    Start by putting your sauces on the vegetables, not the meat. Also, there are other vegetables besides cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots.

  • Steve D

    Here’s a piece of the puzzle I’ve never seen mentioned.

    When you eat out, food is the least of the costs. The restaurant has to pay taxes, salaries, maintenance, has to stay in the good graces of the health department, and so on. Most of us, on the other hand, feel that the restaurant has to pay those costs anyway, so all we want to pay for is the food. So how to keep customers mollified if costs go up? Bigger portions.

    • Polifan

      Portions matter (to stay within calorie count) and if we actually were served an actual serving size. There would be money to make. Quality versus quantity wins!

      Calories in, calories out. This would make a good economy lesson.

  • jakester

    Maybe restaurants can try to serve healthier foods by cooking them better? Better to have a ratatouille or goulash with a little meat and starch and a lot of vegetable than big slabs of beef and tons of starch with a monkey dish of steamed to mush vegetables.

  • jkoke

    I think I can explain the Subway anomaly. When I started looking at the calorie counts and nutrition info, I noticed that the sandwiches that I normally ordered had fewer calories than I expected. If I am counting calories and allot myself 500 calories for lunch, and I see that the 6″ turkey sub on wheat only has 320 calories, I might order a higher-calorie sandwich, add a bag of chips or double the meat. That’s why people increased their calorie intake at Subway… they were eating fewer calories there to begin with.

  • m1chae2

    I live in New York, and lost 15 lbs on weight watchers recently. I lost that weight while eating a lot more fast food. I ate more fast food because the nutritional information was available and that allowed me to more accurately calculate how many points I had used.

    Calorie labeling seems pretty low cost, so its a no-brainer as far as I am concerned.

  • BreakThru Radio

    [...] appears to be little or no influence from the nutritional information being posted in restaurants.In October 2009, researchers from Yale and NYU published a study where they investigated the early i…Another study by The Boston Medical Journal showed that "the average number of calories purchased [...]