The Nutrition Labeling Distraction

Posted by Peter Smith

Pretty soon, we're going to start seeing nutrition labels on restaurant menus. And when T.G.I. Friday's and Applebee's menus start look a little more like their packaged food counterparts, will everyone start making better decisions about their apple pies and sugary margaritas? Maybe.

No single dietary intervention will make a huge difference for all consumers. Take the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, for instance, which set back-of-the-package labeling in motion in 1990. In a recent review [PDF], Alexander Chernev and Pierre Chandon found that while one study suggested that labels increased comprehension of nutrition information, another study found no effect on search, recall, or choice.

There's no scientific consensus on the effects of menu labeling. But many researchers on the subject take stock in a single paper from 2010. In it, Stanford economists examined transactions made by 2.7 million anonymous Starbucks customers. Those buying food in New York City, where a mandatory calorie counts were on display, ate six percent fewer calories per transaction than their counterparts in Boston and Philadelphia, where calorie information was not posted on the menu. (Both groups had relatively the same amount to drink.)

Could this modest "Starbucks effect" be an indicator of how restaurant labeling will reduce everyone's caloric intake? Probably not. More likely, the study shows how labeling will affect nutritionally motivated customers—the kind of people who go to a New York City Starbucks in the first place. As Kevin Bates told me last week, if you're headed to Whole Foods Market or Subway expecting "healthy food," you might be in for a big surprise when the new menus reveal just how many calories a "healthy" salad has.

Either way, it's curious that our labeling "policy has moved way beyond the science," as behavioral economist George Loewenstein told The Washington Post's Mike Rosenwald last week. Earlier this year, Loewenstein was even more blunt about the pitfalls of labeling:

Calorie labeling, in effect, puts the onus of weight reduction on consumers, but consumers have not grown fat because they have stopped paying attention to what they eat; they have grown fat because processed food has become cheaper (both in terms of money and time), whereas fresh food has become more expensive. The most serious risk associated with calorie labeling, therefore, is not its effect on consumers themselves, which is likely to be minimal; the real danger is that it will substitute for, or delay, more substantive policies that get at the root cause of the problem.

Clearly, any food label is bound to be a mixed bag. Perhaps a redesign of the Nutrition Facts label can help convert caloric knowledge into real behavioral changes. Either way, it's worth examining why we consent to food makers slapping useless (but relatively harmless) information on all our food, especially if it's distracting us from paying attention to the intrinsic imbalance that really matters.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}