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Food Labeling and Consumption

I don’t know about you, but I have mixed feelings about including nutritional information on menus. People all over the world manage to be “normal”—even healthy—eaters without knowing precisely how many calories, salt, or fat grams food contains, so why can’t Americans? On the other hand, reading nutritional information alongside menu selections might be just what is needed to break through denial and help folks make better choices. At any rate, here are preliminary results of research on the subject.

Experts admit that because menu labeling laws are fairly new and not well studied, what is known about their impact on diet is inconclusive. Moreover, study results vary wildly.
One study in the January issue of the Journal of Pediatrics focusing on families concluded that “mothers made better choices for their children when provided with calorie numbers, but didn’t make those same decisions for themselves.” A Stanford University study on Starbuck customer eating habits showed decreased calorie consumption after menu labeling was instituted in New York City. A study on the habits of fast-food-chain customers in NYC found that although consumers said they were influenced by a menu’s nutritional information, when calorie consumption was calculated, theirs was similar to that of folks choosing from non-labeled menus. A research report in December’s American Journal of Public Health concluded that folks who cut back calories based on menu labeling at dinner made up for restriction by eating more later in the evening. However, others who were shown not only calories but who also received “information on daily recommended calorie intake as well,” consumed fewer calories in total. Whew!

What about people who rebel against reading calories on a menu, sporting a “No one can tell me what to eat!” or “So what?” attitude? In this case, reading caloric information on a menu might actually trigger overeating. After all, most of us know whether food is low- or high-calorie/fat/salt anyway, don’t we? Including calorie information might educate some of us, but may pull others away from eating intuitively and may make food exclusively about nutrition rather than enjoyment as well. Plus, by targeting the what of eating and not the how or how much, menu labeling does nothing to help eaters decide how hungry, full or satisfied they are.

I know that nutrition and weight “experts” are trying their darndest to get us healthy and are giving it their best shot. It will be interesting to see whether NYC’s experiment with menu labeling pays off. I look forward to more conclusive study results.