Calorie Labeling in New York

So how’s New York City’s new law requiring chain restaurants to disclose nutritional information working out? Kevin Drum reports not so well:

The full study is here. Results are below. The researchers chose 14 fast-food outlets in low-income NYC neighborhoods (Newark was a control group) and interviewed a few hundred people both before and after the calorie labeling law went into effect, asking them if they’d noticed the calorie countsand if they’d changed their selection because of it. Then they got receipts from each respondent so they could find out what they’d actually purchased.

The results were pretty dismal: only about half the respondents even noticed the calorie counts and only 15% said they influenced their choice. But the receipts told an even more dismal story: overall, people actually purchased more calories after the law went into effect. The results aren’t statistically significant, though, so basically all the researchers can really say is that the law (so far) hasn’t had any effect. The only glimmer of good news is that among people under 35, respondents who noticed the labeling did seem to cut back a bit. No other subgroup showed any effect. So who knows? Young people probably respond to this kind of thing more quickly than older people, so maybe it’s just going to take some more time before all this stuff sinks in.

The fact that half the people don’t even notice the information is a bad sign. Obviously the point of having this stuff displayed is for people to read it. Especially given how few people so much as saw the signs, I don’t think it should be hugely surprising that the actual results here are less than stellar. When you think about it, a calorie labeling rule would probably have more impact among middle class or rich customers (yes, there are rich people eating fast food) than in a low-income neighborhood. If you introduce nutritional information to a population that’s acculturated to spending a lot of time worrying about losing weight, then you can see where the impact would come in. But if you’re talking about a low-income community where people are worrying about other things, then what difference is information going to make?

At any rate, more research required, says I.