El Menu

Was Fighting About Menu Labeling Worthwhile?

Almost eight years ago, the New York Times reported on intense fighting about menu labeling in restaurants. They quoted NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden as comparing questions about the effectiveness of menu labeling to “an argument that the world is flat.”

Yesterday, the New York Times headline on the subject was:

The Surprising Failure of Calorie Counts on Menus

Writing in the TheUpshot feature of the Times, pediatrics professor Aaron Carroll gives a rather thorough review of objective evidence on the subject. Not only is the evidence suggesting that menu labeling simply doesn’t work, he says:

Menu labeling may be taking our eye off the ball. By offering us what seems to be a solution, it may prevent us from trying other things that might work better.

Barely a year ago, the editorial board of the Times reiterated its view that “calorie counts on menus and vending machines are a welcome response to combating the nation’s obesity epidemic, one person at a time.” We doubt you’ll see a retraction.

When questions are raised about popular beliefs regarding obesity, a common response is to close ranks and limit consideration of alternate views. Similar to the experience eight years ago with menu labeling, we now see questions about the effectiveness of taxing sugary beverages being dismissed as the work of big soda.

This phenomenon does not help the cause. It saps vitality from efforts to reduce the harm of obesity. An incredible amount of energy goes into very small questions, like “whom can we blame?” Meanwhile, bigger questions are neglected.

Finding interventions that really work to prevent obesity needs more focus. Likewise, more attention should go to the search for treatments that will reverse the devastating effects of severe obesity on people who are living with this disease.

We don’t need to be squabbling about unproven strategies. We need to be finding real solutions.

Click here to read Carroll’s analysis in the New York Times.

El Menu, photograph © Agustín Martina / flickr

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December 1, 2015

2 Responses to “Was Fighting About Menu Labeling Worthwhile?”

  1. December 01, 2015 at 11:19 am, Karl J. Kaiyala, Ph.D said:

    Ted — Many of us who subscribe to the notion that body energy stores are subject to set point-like feedback control are unsurprised by (and predicted; just ask my wife!) the failure of menu labeling, just as we are unsurprised by exercise’s relative lack of lasting effect on established obesity.

    One of the big problems, in my opinion, with the legions of those-who-would-stem-obesity is that most are unaware of or in denial about the existence, complexity and robustness of the evolutionarily-generated and unfortunately asymmetrical energy regulatory system.

    Sugar taxes, if implemented (highly unlikely in the U.S.) will have the same effect on obesity — nothing — because a game of caloric whack-a-mole ensues whereby ones Coke calories are replaced by, say, Yoplait calories.

    I am in complete agreement that “we” need a much better understanding of the biobehavioral control system that regulates energy balance.

    But I am also quite certain that the food industry marketing practices play a major role in overall obesity pathogenesis. Marketing practices, including a focus on kids, the ongoing effort to encourage “recreational eating,” and product development science that leverages the importance of the reward system in product consumption, simply should not be ignored in the discussion of obesity pathogenesis. Yet for the most part, we seem to.

    • December 02, 2015 at 6:43 am, Ted said:

      Well said, Karl. I agree with you completely — especially on the role of food marketing. Though I don’t subscribe to notions of evil intent, I’m pretty clear on the pernicious effects. A more sustainable business model is needed — one that doesn’t kill the customers or hasten their death. You can find more here: https://conscienhealth.org/2014/06/food-marketing-obesity-problem-or-solution/