Does calorie labeling on restaurant menus encourage healthier eating? A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests not, concluding that calorie labeling on menus is ineffective.
Yet don't expect that to deter your local food police from continuing to push nanny-state policies. And now they'll have help from the federal government, thanks to Obamacare.
The report, authored by researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Cornell universities, examined what foods New Yorkers purchased before and after the city's menu labeling laws went into effect. According to the report, "posting calorie benchmarks had no direct impact, nor did it moderate the impact of calorie labels on food purchases."
But that's not about to deter the food nannies for pushing their crusade. For example, Kelly Bronwell, Dean of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and board member of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has stated that when it comes to food regulation, there is no time to wait on science.
"For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty," he wrote in a 2009 op-ed defending menu labeling. Bronwell and CSPI have yet to change their tune.
Now to make matters worse, these costly and ineffective menu regulations are mandated under Obamacare, and could be enforced by the Food and Drug Administration any day now. Section 4205 of the Affordable Care Act requires any restaurant or food service location with at least 20 locations to post calorie counts on their menus.
Other studies have also found that menu regulations are ineffective. Brian Elbel of the New York University School of Medicine found similar results in his research of the New York menu regulations. Elbel examined the receipts for four different fast food chains before and after the calorie-count regulation went into place.
He told The New York Times that he found no substantial change in consumers' orders. "It's becoming increasingly clear that nothing big is happening for a large group of people," he said. He also conducted this research in Philadelphia in 2010, with similar results.
It should be up to each individual how and whether to count their calories, not the government. And people who are interested in getting the calorie counts of the foods they buy already have ways to do so. For example, Starbucks has a menu with the calories of all of its drinks at the front of all of its stores.
There are also free smartphone apps available where people can enter the food they are eating and get calories. Some restaurant chains have calorie counters available online.
Not only are calorie-labeling regulations ineffective, they are also costly. Domino's CEO J. Patrick Doyle estimates that these new menu regulations could cost each of his stores any where from $1,600 to $4,700 annually. Imposing new, costly regulations on businesses is the last thing the government should be doing in a lagging economy.
These new regulations will do nothing for people who aren't interested in counting calories. And those interested in searching out that kind of data on their own already have ways to do so, as more and more restaurants are responding to consumers' demand for nutritional information by voluntarily making it available.
The reality is that government cannot mandate people to adopt what some officials consider good eating habits. But it can punish restaurants with higher costs — which are ultimately passed down to consumers, either through increased prices or reduced choice on menus. Chalk up these costly new regulations as one more argument for repealing Obamacare.
Liz Thatcher is an adjunct analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.