Is Menu Labeling A Failure?

From The New York Times:

The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

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, in July 2008.

There’s a certain amount of common sense at play here.  Having calorie counts put on the menu doesn’t necessarily mean that you can afford to buy healthier food, and cheaper food is usually worse food; McDonalds has the chicken nuggets and fries on the dollar menu, but their salads run more like three or four bucks.

But the promise of the calorie-counts was never that they would change consumer eating habits.  People like salty, greasy food, and so far no one’s really been able to change that.  What the calorie counts have the promise to do is to force restaurants to offer healthier food.  As Ezra Klein has noted, we’re already seeing that happen at reasonably big restaurants:

The Macaroni Grill, for instance, just cut its scallop and spinach salad from an astonishing 1,270 calories — do they grow the spinach in butter? — to 390 calories. Denny’s has slimmed down its Grand Slam breakfast. And the law hasn’t even gone into effect yet.

But this is exactly the response we’d expect. The Macaroni Grill’s example is a good one. Ordering the spinach and scallop salad is the sort of thing that you’d do if you were watching your calories. But since you didn’t actually know how many calories were in the dish, the Macaroni Grill could make it delicious and filling and fatty and you really weren’t any the wiser.

So I wouldn’t be quick to declare menu-labeling a failure.  I think that its real effects won’t be felt for a year or two more, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we see these big chains slimming down a lot of their offerings in an effort to at least provide something that’s reasonably low in calories.