Calorie Counts Don’t Affect Food Decisions

After New York City passed a law requir­ing many chain res­taur­ants to post the cal­or­if­ic value of all food they sold on their menus (in the same size and font as the price), research­ers star­ted look­ing at how the post­ing of cal­or­ie counts affect con­sumer decision mak­ing and food con­sump­tion.

The study’s find­ings, as sum­mar­ised rather con­cisely in The New York Times, show that the law did­n’t have the desired effect the legis­lat­ors undoubtedly wanted:

It found that about half the cus­tom­ers noticed the cal­or­ie counts, which were prom­in­ently pos­ted on menu boards. About 28 per­cent of those who noticed them said the inform­a­tion had influ­enced their order­ing, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made health­i­er choices as a res­ult.

But when the research­ers checked receipts after­ward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more cal­or­ies than the typ­ic­al cus­tom­er had before the labeling law went into effect.

Freako­nom­ics author Steph­en Dub­n­er has his the­ory on the find­ings:

I sus­pect that the people who will be most respons­ive to it, espe­cially in the long run, are those who are already the most vigil­ant about their health and well-being. Think of it this way: what if the safest drivers on the road were the only ones to wear seat belts?

I’m sub­scrib­ing instead to the the­ory I first dis­covered after read­ing that the pres­ence of salads on menus makes con­sumers more likely to eat unhealth­ily:

Once you see the salad, real­ize it’s bet­ter for you and know that it’s an option, your inner sense of self-sat­is­fac­tion is triggered, and then… you let your­self order fries, just because you were oh-so-smart enough to think about the salad, if only fleet­ingly.