A colleague and I are working on an article about New York City menu labeling laws--if you live in NYC, you probably already noticed calorie counts posted on in-store menu boards. Menu labeling is now a law--restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide are required to post calorie counts.
For now, I'd like to look at a number of assumptions inherent to menu labeling laws.
1)Consumers don’t already have an idea about the caloric content of their favorite foods: Those most likely to respond to calorie postings likely already have a sense about the nutritional information of the foods they’re eating. They’ve read the pamphlets or scoured the internet in order to reduce their caloric intake. In-store menu labeling may encourage consumers to base more and more of their food decisions on caloric amounts, leading to greater food restriction, a pathway to clinical eating disorders. For those who already struggle with eating disorders, menu labeling can be emotionally triggering, as patients in recovery work quite diligently to remove their shift from calorie counting.
2)Consumers are concerned about caloric content and will choose lower calorie foods: Another subset of consumers represents those that typically eat higher calorie diets, enjoy their dining out, and aren’t particularly interested in calorie counting. Customers at fast food restaurants, for instance, are often driven by taste and cost, and likely won’t be swayed by caloric labeling.
3)Reducing calories is the only way to promote healthier eating: Another pitfall with caloric labeling is that only the calorie count is posted. Therefore, there is a potential for consumers to choose lower calorie foods, while disregarding other variables such as protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber content, along with the host of vitamins and minerals that certain foods contain. An eight-ounce glass of skim milk is more caloric than a similarly sized serving of Diet Soda, but the milk is more nutritious.
4)Consumers will be able to sustain a lower calorie diet, requiring them to sacrifice what they prefer to eat: It’s estimated that over 95% of all diets fail, as humans do not respond well to the experience of deprivation—whatever weight is lost through dieting is often regained (and then some) as we compensate for a period of deprivation. If we make food choices based on caloric information, rather than on what we crave, we’ll begin to feel deprived, just as dieters do. Food choices based on food cravings (“I feel like a cheese sandwich for lunch” vs. “I should have a salad”), as part of a balanced overall diet, are more likely to be associated with healthier attitudes toward food and reduced incidence of overeating.