If your local Chipotle or McDonald’s restaurant menus look more confusing than before, you can probably thank President Obama and his signature healthcare law. Menu labeling regulations have forced food chains to display the caloric value of menu items. I wonder if the complexity of reporting calories is the reason my local Chick-fil-A stopped selling coleslaw.
With better information about the calories we consume, the idea is that we’ll make healthier choices. However, new research from the Cato Institute finds that menu labeling mandates at movie theaters, restaurants, and grocery stores do nothing to help us shed pounds. Instead it places greater headaches and costs on businesses and we the consumers end up paying.
After studying 300,000 people from 30 large cities between 2003 and 2012, researchers found that the impact of menu labeling on factors such as BMI and obesity was “trivial” and fleeting – rapidly fading. As an example, they found that the weight of an adult male who is 5’10’’ would be reduced from 190 pounds to just 189.5 pounds. Over the long run, the impact on his body weight is essentially zero.
Previous research supports the idea that learning information about the calories in food and beverages may lead to healthier purchases at chain restaurants, but those are one-off purchases and don't necessarily translate to other food purchases outside of restaurants. Unfortunately, those studies have been used by cities such as New York to justify their menu labeling requirements. If only they studied the long-term impact before making it public policy. One survey of customers in New York City immediately after the menu mandate took effect in 2008 found that the percentage of people who noticed and used the information declined and there were no statistical difference in calorie levels or visits to fast food restaurants.
The Cato report concludes:
The analysis in this study has found that menu mandates are a futile effort to reduce body weight, with trivial or short-lived effects on BMI and obesity. What public efforts should be undertaken to reduce obesity? The intuitive answer is “nothing at all.” People make choices about all aspects of their lives. Whether it is to eat unhealthily, smoke cigarettes, use drugs, consume alcohol, drop out of school, watch too much television, not exercise, or not save for retirement, all of these decisions should ultimately fall onto the individual, who has to live with the consequences of his or her actions…
Finally, some prominent behavioral economists look at the evidence on ineffectiveness of calorie labeling and suggest doubling down. Cass Sunstein has recently argued that menu mandates are too complicated and argues for “simple and meaningful” disclosures to consumers, such as putting a “red light” on highly caloric foods and a “green light” on the healthier ones.31 The current analysis shows that the problem is not lack of knowledge or conveying information—on the contrary, the consumers who responded to the menu mandates were among the most knowledgeable. Rather, people have preferences that are more or less fixed, and for the most part, people enjoy cheeseburgers more than broccoli…
If menu labeling has little or no long-term impact, why are we forcing every national and regional food chain and movie theater to enact them? Washington elites and so-called experts are trying to control what we put on our forks as if we aren’t smart enough to decide for ourselves. As researchers rightly conclude, we are responsible for our decisions and force-feeding us or shaming some foods over others will not lead to long-term change in our eating habits.
Our free market system provide culinary benefits that include a plethora of dining options to meet our tastes, desire, and even cultures. When government intervenes, we lose the colorful patchwork of foods on our plates because they don’t meet arbitrary standards and recommendations set by nameless bureaucrats and we lose the flavor of life.