Issue Report: Mandatory calorie counts on menus

Is mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus good public policy?

Many national, regional, and city governments in developed countries around the world have been experimenting with requiring restaurants and food chains to list on their menus the calories of the foods they offer. These efforts have been designed to respond to major obesity, health, and dietary problems in countries around the world. In the United States, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported in August of 2009: “The journal Health Affairs published a study showing that the medical costs of obesity have nearly doubled since 1998, to $147 billion last year, about half of which was financed through Medicare and Medicaid. Obesity accounts for 9.1% of national healthcare spending, according to the study, up from 6.5% a decade ago. The costs are rising because Americans are getting fatter. The average citizen is now 23 pounds overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and obesity rose by 37% between 1998 and 2006.” Despite such obesity crises, mandatory calorie counts on menus has been controversial. Many questions frame the debate: Do calories on menus improve consumer choice? Are calorie counts an appropriate government action, or do they go too far in “engineering” citizens personal choices? Are calorie counts effective at influencing consumer behavior? Do consumers, and particularly restaurant-goers care? Would consumers rather not be bothered by calorie-counts when they are trying to enjoy their meals, enjoying “blissful ignorance”? Do obesity problems, and the strain they create on health care systems and taxpayers, justify aggressive mandates such as mandatory calorie counts? Are calorie counts accurate enough for consumers to be able to rely on them? Will calorie counts pressure restaurants to actually make healthier foods? Can restaurants bear the economic burden of having to list calories? Should they be allowed to engage in calorie counting voluntarily, and will the markets demand it, or are government mandates necessary? Overall, are laws mandating that restaurants list calories on their menus a good idea?

Choice: Do mandatory calorie counts improve consumer choice?

Calories on menus empower consumers to make healthier choices

The Department of Health argued in October of 2007, in regards to the New York city legislation mandating calorie counts on menus: “calorie information provided at the time of food selection would enable New Yorkers to make more informed, healthier choices.”[1]

Calorie counts make it easier to judge calories in foods

"Should Restaurants Be Required To Post Calorie Information?". Dr. Dolgoff's Weigh. Dr. Dolgoff. July 19th, 2009

“As a pediatrician and child obesity specialist, I spend my days talking to overweight families. I am constantly surprised at the lack of knowledge about calories and nutrition. While it may seem obvious that certain foods have a lot of calories, most people are unaware of exactly how many calories they contain.” In general, even with people who are not obese, it can be difficult to accurately judge the calories in any given restaurant entre, with people consistently expressing surprise at the actual calorie content of certain meals. Calorie counts helps avoid any ambiguity, clarifying exactly what consumers are getting. This is as it should be.

Calorie counts offer info, they don't pressure consumers

Raquel Bournhonesque, a member of Upstream Public Health and the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance, who supported a 2009 bill in Oregon that mandated calorie counts on menus: “It is just information. It doesn’t tell people what to order or how to eat.”[2] This responds to the criticism that mandating calories is somehow “social engineering” or the coercion of consumers. It does not do so. The information that is provided on menus offers no judgement at all as to whether it is “bad” to consume a meal with 1,000 calories. But, it is important for consumers to know and have this information.

Social engineering" with calorie counts is justified in health crisis

It is justified for the government discourage certain behavior when that behavior (overeating), has created a health crisis that both damages overweight individuals, and places a burden on other citizens (in the form of higher health care costs).

Fear of government should not obstruct calorie counts on menus

"A recipe for controversy" Los Angeles Times (editorial). August 10, 2009

“all reform has to start somewhere. It’s counterproductive to avoid action because of fears that it will lead to scarier actions later; the time to stop is when regulations become overly burdensome on businesses and overly restrictive of consumer choice. The calorie-count rule is neither, and it would also avert a patchwork of labeling laws in states such as California and New York by setting a national standard for all chains. As a bonus, it may be the only piece of legislation in 2009 with a strong chance to make Americans look better in their swimsuits.”

Customers don't need calorie counts to choose healthy vs. unhealthy

People are not stupid. They know when they are eating healthy food and they know when they are eating unhealthy food. It is common sense. People that choose to eat at McDonalds don’t need calorie counts on menus to demonstrate that the food is unhealthy. They already know, and don’t care. If people want to choose to eat healthy, they already have enough information to choose to make healthier choices, such as eating fruits and vegetables, cutting portion sizes, and exercising regularly. People are already fully able to choose healthy vs. unhealthy diets and life styles. Calories counts on menus will not improve their ability to make that choice.

Calories on menus is a malign form of government social engineering

Jeff Jacoby. "Want a warning label with those fries?" The Boston Globe. January 11, 2009

Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine puts his finger on it: ‘A legal requirement is necessary not because diners want conspicuous nutritional information but because, by and large, they don’t want it.’ Nanny-statists find it easy to disregard consumers’ wishes. After all, they reason, it’s for their own good — obesity is a deadly scourge that government must not ignore. Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach warned darkly last week that ‘unless we make progress’ — that is, unless the government imposes new restrictions on liberty — ‘overweight and obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in Massachusetts.'”

Mandatory calorie counts infringe restaurants' freedom of speech

The New York State Restaurant Association made this argument against New York city’s imposition of calorie counting laws on restaurants in the summer of 2008.[3]

Consumers can find info off menus, calorie counts unnecessary

Steve Chapman. "Force-fed the facts". Reason. June 23, 2008

“the entire effort rests on assumptions that are unexamined and unfounded. The first is that consumers place a high value on the information being mandated. Actually, most of it is already accessible (online, among other ways) to anyone who is interested. In many places, it is available onsite, on tray liners or pamphlets.” [Therefore, customers already often have a choice to inform themselves on the calorie contents of foods in restaurants].

Counting portions, not calories, is a better route to health

Bill Phillips. "The Truth About Counting Calories".

“There aren’t many people who can keep track of their calorie intake for an extended period of time. As an alternative, I recommend counting ‘portions.’ A portion of food is roughly equal to the size of your clenched fist or the palm of your hand. Each portion of protein or carbohydrate typically contains between 100 and 150 calories. For example, one chicken breast is approximately one portion of protein, and one medium-sized baked potato is approximately one portion of carbohydrate.”

Rights: Do consumers have a right to know the calories on the menu?

Consumers have a right to know calories in meals

Karen Springen. "Full Disclosure". Newsweek. November 14, 2008

“The other important reason [for calorie counts] is just consumers’ right to know. You have whatever clothing you’re wearing now. It has the tag on it that says where it’s made and what it’s made of. Why? You deserve to know. When you buy a packaged food, it says what’s in it. Consumers would be upset if that information was taken away.”

Diners want blissful ignorance without calorie counts

Jacob Sullum. "Are you sure you want fries with that?" Reason. August 20, 2008

“What about the consumer’s right not to know? The same research that supporters of menu mandates like to cite indicates that most consumers prefer to avoid calorie counts, enjoying their food in blissful ignorance. There’s a difference between informing people and nagging them.”

Blissful ignorance: Do mandatory calorie counts destroy blissful ignorance?

Calorie counts rightly value health over blissful ignorance

There is no such thing as “blissful ignorance”. While it is interesting to argue that customers sometimes would prefer to live in “blissful ignorance” of the calories in the foods they are eating, this argument is much weaker than the general principle that more information is always better, especially when it comes to health. The “bliss” a few customers might feel when ignoring their health at a restaurant is far outweighed by the pain and suffering caused by obesity, heart-disease, and the strains on the health-care system that result.

Only small minority prefers "blissful ignorance" to calories on menus

It is probably true that some people would prefer not to know how many calories are in the food that they are consuming. But, this kind of blissful-ignorance attitude is the minority, and the majority – who care about their health – should not be denied this important information in order to prop up a mis-guided, ignorant, and harmful attitude.

Diners want blissful ignorance without calorie counts

Jacob Sullum. "Are you sure you want fries with that?" Reason. August 20, 2008

“What about the consumer’s right not to know? The same research that supporters of menu mandates like to cite indicates that most consumers prefer to avoid calorie counts, enjoying their food in blissful ignorance. There’s a difference between informing people and nagging them.”

Jordan Zack, a customer in California, told Team Sugar in 2009: “You don’t want to know the calories on any day, especially not on your birthday. I just want to enjoy my food.”[4]

Opinion: Do citizens strongly desire calorie counts on menus?

Large majorities of citizens want calorie counts on menus

Steve Chapman. "Force-fed the facts". Reason. June 23, 2008

“A survey by the agency of more than 2,000 adults last summer suggested 85% of consumers agreed restaurants, pubs and cafes had a responsibility to make clear what was in the food they served, and later research showed people wanted clear, simple information at the point of sale. The agency expects consumer demand to force all food outlets from the very small to the very expensive to give calorie information.” [such large majorities want to be able to make informed choices based on the calorie information provided on menus]

Customers are indifferent to calorie counts on menus

In other words, consumers aren’t really demanding “a choice”, and calorie counts on menus. Ken Poulin, a consumer in New York said to USA Today in response to a 2008 New York law that required certain large restaurant chains in the city to list calories on their menus: “People are going to eat what they want; it doesn’t matter what the menus say. People need to eat more vegetables and have common sense.”[5]

Efficacy: Are calorie counts effective at improving health?

Calorie counts cause consumers to make healthier choices

"Calorie Count On Menus Is Influencing Consumer Behavior, Says Technomic". Medical News Today. February 8, 2009

“A new survey conducted by foodservice consultants Technomic, Inc. revealed that the mandated calorie disclosure for New York City restaurants with 15 or more units is affecting what items consumers order and which restaurants they visit. Technomic found that 86 percent of New York City restaurant-goers were surprised by the calorie count information now listed on menus or menu boards, with 90 percent of them claiming that the calorie count was higher than expected. As a consequence, 82 percent say that calorie disclosure is affecting what they order and 60 percent say it is affecting where they visit. The researchers also found evidence that suggests a high level of consumer support for mandated disclosure of fat and sodium content in restaurant foods.”

Calorie counts will be ignored by some, but help others

"A recipe for controversy" Los Angeles Times (editorial). August 10, 2009

“We’re under no illusions that posting calorie counts on menus is the miracle-diet solution to the country’s weight problem. Nobody goes to Taco Bell expecting to get health food; some consumers will pay no more attention to the calorie information than they do to the nutritional labels on packaged foods. Yet those labels do make a difference for many people”

No "proof" calorie counts work, but a reasonable expectation

New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said in 2008 in regards to legislation in New York City mandating calories on menus: “We don’t have 100 percent proof that it’s going to work, but we have a reasonable expectation it will be successful.”[6] This responds to general arguments that “there are no assurances that it will work”. This is always true with any policy, but should not hamstring efforts at making progress in solving major, systemic health problems through policies that have a good chance of working.

Calorie counts are worth a try as they do no harm

Carl Bialik. "Do the Numbers Behind Calorie Counts Add Up?". The Wall Street Journal. July 7, 2009

Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont who co-authored a skeptical paper about the effect of menu labeling, said, “There is a need for additional research to determine if ultimately providing calorie labeling in restaurants will help stop the progression of overweight and obesity among the American public. Until this evidence is available, I take a ‘do no harm’ approach to the issue and I do not see that any harm would be done to consumers by providing this important information.”

Customers will pay more attention to calorie counts over time

While it may be true that some tests have shown that many restaurant goers do not necessarily pay attention to calorie counts, this will change over time as more customers learn that the information is there and learn how to read calorie counts appropriately and judge them according to one’s optimal daily calorie intake. The tests that have been performed, therefore, do not indicate how customers will respond to a new culture of calorie counts over time.

Calorie counts are ineffective at compelling healthier choices

Jeff Jacoby. "Want a warning label with those fries?" The Boston Globe. January 11, 2009

“with the rise of the Internet, Americans have access to more such information today than ever before. Yet Americans are also fatter than ever before. […] Perhaps that is because hectoring people about calories doesn’t usually make them thinner. It doesn’t work when family members do it. It won’t work any better when regulators do it. Not even in Massachusetts.”

Labeling has not decreased obesity, why would calorie counts?

Steve Chapman. "Force-Fed the Facts". Reason. June 23, 2008

“The belief that more facts will generate wiser decisions is appealing but, at least in the realm of food, yet to be proved. No one seems to have noticed that as nutritional labeling has expanded, so have American waistlines. The federal government first required packaged foods to carry such information in the mid-1970s, and today, we are collectively fatter than we were then. What does that suggest? Either people don’t notice what’s in the food they buy, or they don’t let the knowledge affect what goes in their mouths.”

Customers are indifferent to calorie counts on menus

  • Ken Poulin, a consumer in New York said to USA Today in response to a 2008 New York law that required certain large restaurant chains in the city to list calories on their menus: “People are going to eat what they want; it doesn’t matter what the menus say. People need to eat more vegetables and have common sense.”[7]

Those dining out are less likely to care about calories

Steve Chapman. "Force-fed the facts". Reason. June 23, 2008

“A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that people who dine out frequently are less likely to pay attention to nutritional data than people who eat mostly at home. It suggested that ‘those who have a less nutritious diet are less likely to use food labels and have less interest in doing so.'”

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