Menu Leon Frapie

Oops: The Mistaken Rush for Menu Calorie Labeling

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Back in 2008, there was a headlong rush to require restaurant menu calorie labeling by decree. New York City tried it first. Other cities and states followed quickly. Tired of fighting it in a dizzying array of local venues, the restaurant industry came on board with the idea at a national scale and in 2010, the Affordable Care Act mandated it for chain restaurants everywhere in the U.S. It took eight more years, but finally, in May of 2018, the requirement took full effect

There’s just one little problem. This policy doesn’t have a durable effect of nudging people toward healthier eating patterns. The best evidence says that, if it has any effect on obesity, it will be negligible – especially over time. Certainly, in New York City, where these requirments started 14 years ago, the policy has had no effect. Obesity keeps rising. Food purchases in restaurants are unchanged.

A Biting Critique

If you want to listen to a harsh (perhaps even caustic) review of this policy debacle, the Maintenance Phase podcast has it this week. In short, Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon tell us that the evidence to support doing this was non-existent when the headlong rush started. As the evidence accumulated later, it became plain that the effect was trivial or non-existent.

But perhaps most important, they debunked the idea that this is a harmless little nudge:

“Is there any evidence of the harms these policies are causing?

“In terms of academic research, I would say no. In terms of outcry from experts and survivors of eating disorders and fat people, very clearly, yes. For people with restrictive eating disorders like anorexia or bulemia, if they are in recovery or not, seeing these kinds of calorie counts can actually trigger a relapse or a worsening of their eating disorder.

“The other thing that research is not really asking is, what are the social impacts of a policy like this?

“It really does invite these f-ing gremlins to tell you unbidden what they think about what you you’re doing.”

In other words, this is a policy for which advocates imagined a benefit – without carefully considering the possibility for harm. Research casting about for a positive story to tell has found no durable benefits. Research on adverse effects is sparse. But spontaneous reports of adverse events are easy to find. It’s a bleak picture.

Undaunted by Failure and Casualties

Despite failing grades for benefits and harms, this policy persists and spreads like a zombie plague. Perhaps this is because advocates for the policy were quick to criticize and even try to silence anyone who would speak up with inconvenient truths about it.

The UK has now implemented the same ineffective policies for menu labeling in the name of “tackling obesity.” Writing in Nature Reviews Endocriniology, Giles Yeo expresses sympathy for this policy as something that might have a small effect, benefitting more privileged segments of the population. But he explains why it won’t be any help for others:

“The cold hard truth is that the risk of obesity in those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is not going to be fixed with calorie labelling, but by making healthy food cheaper and more convenient, and by solving poverty.”

Policies with make-believe benefits are not good enough in the real world. The rush to implement menu calorie labeling has been an objective failure. It’s time to get curious and find other approaches with objectively demonstrable effects.

Click here for the Maintenance Phase podcast on this subject and here for further perspctive. For reviews of the evidence on this subject, click here, here, and here.

Menu Leon Frapie, illustration by Theophile Steinlen / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


July 12, 2022

2 Responses to “Oops: The Mistaken Rush for Menu Calorie Labeling”

  1. July 12, 2022 at 12:44 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Calories on the menus does not change the physiology. Or as Lee Kaplan would say it is “non-physiological”. What leads to too much adipose tissue in a specific person in the first place, we do not know. How to help a patient get to a healthier body composition, we now have many tools that affect the physiology or energy regulation. It is way more complicated than “calories in vs calories out”.


  2. July 13, 2022 at 1:25 am, David Brown said:

    The lesson here is that one should never assume an assumption is correct. As W. E, Deming advised, “In God we trust; everyone else must bring data.”