No one’s counting the calories

Calorie labels on food do more harm than good.

Calorie counts on menus and menu boards are the food police’s unsubtle attempt to educate us into making ‘better’ choices. Most of us neither need nor appreciate this bureaucratic nudge.

In America, such mandates are included in the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) that kicked in this year. So, national restaurant chains are now required to disclose calorie counts in their menus. And three years ago in the UK, then-health secretary Andrew Lansley asked restaurants to ‘voluntarily’ label food with calorie counts.

Proponents of this policy believe that consumers are generally uninformed about their restaurant meals, especially the calorie counts. Therefore, providing consumers with this information will make a substantial difference to both what, and how much, people eat and, consequently, enable them to lose weight.

These assumptions are wrong. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that calorie counts are ineffective and potentially counter-productive for certain consumers. In fact, the vast majority of this evidence was available long (and in some cases, decades) before these regulations were rolled out.

Calorie counts do not produce the behavioural changes that their proponents envision. For example, over a decade of nutritional labelling, including calorie content, of processed food has failed to have any significant impact on obesity levels. Furthermore, studies have found that providing nutritional labelling brings about no net nutritional gains because consumers have a defined ‘nutrient budget’. This means that consumers tend to reward themselves for calorie or fat deprivation, for example, by increasing their calorie or fat content with another dish at the same meal or at a latter meal.

As for listing calories on the menus at fast-food restaurants, this does not affect kids’ choices or those that their parents make for them, according to an American study in the International Journal of Obesity. Published in the Journal of Community Health, a recent review of 31 studies between January 2007 and July 2013, which explored the influence of calorie information on consumer choices, found ‘calorie labels do not have the desired effect in reducing total calories ordered’.

An earlier British study in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that providing information about healthy and unhealthy food ‘did not substantially affect expectations of sensory quality and acceptance, or overall energy and fat intake’. What providing information about healthy and unhealthy food did succeed in doing was to decrease the number of people selecting the healthier, lower-fat option.

A study published in the journal Military Medicine researched the effectiveness of nutrition labelling and warnings in an American army cafeteria. The study found no significant difference in the sales of the labeled items. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink found that restaurant customers already discriminated among fast-food restaurants based on their understanding of the calorie count of the food and its healthiness. And a series of studies in the Journal of Nutrition Education found that calorie labelling did not significantly lower overall calorie intake.

Such is the dearth of empirical evidence in favour of calorie counts that researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have just suggested that, as most people simply ignore calorie counts, they should be replaced by something scarier, that is, information on how much exercise is required to burn off the calories consumed.

There are several reasons why calorie counts are ineffective in changing consumer behaviour. First, consumers are aware of the calorie content of the food they consume away from home. The assumption that there is a food-information deficit is simply not true. For some time, consumers have clearly recognised that less healthy food options have more calories and fat than healthier options. This means that the major goal of calorie counts – the provision of information for healthy eating and calorie restriction – had already been achieved before they were introduced.

Second, despite consumers’ understanding of healthy eating, studies show that for many consumers, particularly in restaurant settings, changing their eating habits is not simply a matter of providing more information. Rather, eating habits are driven by a more fundamental issue: individual taste.

This has considerable implications for evaluating the genuine, as opposed to the stated, motivation for pushing calorie counts. If most consumers know the difference between eating a doughnut and a green salad, then perhaps the real agenda of calorie-count champions is not the neutral effort of providing information. Rather, it may be an ideologically driven attempt to coerce restaurants into changing their offerings in order to compel consumers into changing what they choose to eat.

Third, consumers see labelling, particularly about calories, as a form of government warning: ‘Don’t eat this food, it has too many calories!’ The research evidence demonstrating the failure of such warnings is legion. In fact, such warnings can be profoundly counter-productive, as they can lead not only to the information being ignored, but to behaviour directly at odds with the health-based message. Identifying menu items as low-calorie or healthy can antagonise customers who see this as attempting to interfere with their freedom of choice.

This calorie count policy is also deeply inappropriate. The evidence suggests that it is not regulation designed to provide information for ‘informed’ choices, but regulation designed to change supplier and consumer behaviour based on the assumption that the regulator knows best.

Calorie counts are nothing more than a form of soft stigmatisation in which the government attempts to use calories to declare otherwise legal foods as, in some way, illegitimate. In effect, calories are really shorthand for the fact that certain foods are deemed ‘bad’.

And since providing this sort of allegedly neutral information does not change consumer preferences, in coming years there will be continued pressure to replace or augment such information with fully-fledged cigarette-style warnings, advising consumers to avoid completely certain ‘inappropriate’ foods on the grounds that they lead to obesity, ill health and death.

Clearly, such social engineering lies beyond the scope of appropriate regulation.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is co-author, alongside John Luik and Gio Gori, of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade.

References:

Nutrition Labeling on Menu Boards and Menus: A Recipe for Failure, P Basham and J Luik, Washington Legal Foundation, Washington, DC, December 2007

‘Reducing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption by Providing Caloric Information: How Black Adolescents Alter Their Purchases and Whether the Effects Persist’, S Bleich et al, American Journal of Public Health October, 2014

‘The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions’, P Chandon and B Wansink, Journal of Consumer Research 2007 (34), pp 301-314

‘Child and Adolescent Fast-Food Choice and the Influence of Calorie Labeling: A Natural Experiment’, B Elbel et al, International Journal of Obesity 2011 (35), pp 493-500

‘The Influence of Calorie Labeling on Food Orders and Consumption: A Review of the Literature’, KM Kiszko et al, Journal of Community Health24 April 2014

‘Does Nutritional Information About the Energy Density of Meals Affect Food Intake in Normal-Weight Women?’, T Kral et al, Appetite 2002 (39), pp 132-145

‘A Multi-Component Intervention for Modifying Food Selections in a Worksite Cafeteria’, J Mayer et al, Journal of Nutrition Education 1987 (19), pp 227-280

Nutritional Quality: A Contract Caterer’s Perspective’, A Pawan, Journal of Research in Social Health 1993 (113), pp 324-326

‘Does Point-of-Purchase Nutrition Labeling Influence Meal Selection: A Test in Military Cafeteria’, A Sproul et al, Military Medicine 2003 (168), pp 556-560

‘The Influence of Recipe Modification and Nutritional Information on Restaurant Food Acceptance and Macronutrient Intakes’, K Stubenitsky et al, Public Health Nutrition 2000 (3), pp 201-209

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