What Is The Case Against Calorie Menu Labeling

Another day another article about how requiring restaurants to list the calorie counts of their meals doesn’t impact consumer behavior. Personally, I don’t find this all that surprising. Behavior tends not to change that much in the short term. I think the real issue here is that you’re changing the business environment. A menu labeling rule creates a potential business opportunity for restauranteurs to try to make money with demonstrably healthier offerings, and only time will tell if that opportunity is real and anyone seizes it. But either way, I don’t understand what the objection to this kind of policy is supposed to be:

“There is a great concern among many of the people who study calorie labeling that the policy has moved way beyond the science and that it would be beneficial to slow down,” said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University who studies calorie labeling. In a recent editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, he asked: “Given the lack of evidence that calorie posting reduces calorie intake, why is the enthusiasm for the policy so pervasive?”

Enthusiasm for the policy is so pervasive because the intervention is so utterly mild. Compare that to a proposal for a $100 tax on cheeseburgers. A cheeseburger tax would be extremely burdensome on people who really like cheeseburgers. It’s possible that you could persuade me that the public health benefits would be so dramatic that this kind of seemingly arbitrary tax is a good idea, but that’d be a high evidentiary hill to climb. But the long-term financial cost of making people print calorie counts on menus is zero. It’s possible that consumers turn out not to care, in which case there’s no cost at all. Alternatively, if it does turn out that some firms’ interests are adversely impacted by the rule that would have to be because it turns out that consumers actually do care a lot about calorie counts. At worst, there’s no impact. At best, you’re helping people. Either way, it seems worth doing.

Meanwhile, I do once again want to note that it’s difficult to assess the short-term impact here. I lost about 60–70 pounds last year based on rigorously counting calories. But that didn’t mean that I never went to Five Guys for a burger and fries, and it also didn’t mean that I made “healthier choices” when I did go to Five Guys. Even without menu labeling, I think people know what they’re signing up for when they go to a burger joint, and that’s fine. Where looking up calories did make a lot of difference was in choosing between different healthy-sounding salad options at places that do have healthy options. Everyone understands that a bacon cheeseburger has a lot of calories, but the gap between the Cobb Salad and the Steakhouse Salad at Chopt isn’t obvious unless you actually look it up.