The Nutrition Nazis are Back

The consume’rs right to know. It’s hard to disagree with the nanny-state proposal now before the California legislature (I know, I know … what nanny-state procedure isn’t before the California legislature!?) to require full disclosure of calories on menus by restaurants. The target, of course, is supposedly unhealthy fast food outlets. Once people see the calorie count, it is assumed that they will desert en masse to the local veggie bar.  But as Jacob Sullum of Reason points out, if people really wanted that information, companies would compete to provide it. It’s fair to assume that most people who show up at McDonald’s don’t expect a healthy meal!

They certainly aren’t likely to change their eating habits.  Writes Sullum:

The only chain where a substantial share of customers said they noticed nutritional information was Subway, where 32 percent reported seeing it, compared to 4 percent at the other chains. Since Subway promotes a subset of its menu as lower in calories and fat than its competitors’ offerings, using a pitchman who lost hundreds of pounds while eating at the chain every day, this disparity is not surprising.

But even at Subway, calorie information seemed to make a difference for just one in eight customers. Of those who reported seeing the calorie information at Subway, 37 percent—12 percent of all Subway customers—said it affected their purchases. Subway customers who said they used calorie information bought about 100 fewer calories than those who said they didn’t see it and those who said they saw it but didn’t use it.

Notably, “there was no significant difference in mean calories purchased by patrons reporting seeing but not using calorie information and patrons who reported not seeing calorie information.” In other words, simply making people aware of calorie content is not enough to affect their food choices.

The information’s influence may be limited to people who are predisposed to count calories. If so, the impact of menu mandates will depend on the extent to which those people are not taking advantage of less obtrusive nutritional information already provided by restaurants.

The importance of pre-existing preferences also suggests that it’s risky to extrapolate from Subway customers (who, given the chain’s marketing, are probably especially weight-conscious) to fast food consumers in general. Another unresolved question is whether people compensate for fewer calories consumed at McDonald’s or KFC by eating more at home or elsewhere.

Even if menu regulations don’t make any difference on balance, Yale obesity researcher Kelly Brownell recently told the Los Angeles Times, “there’s still the issue of the consumer’s right to know.” What about the consumer’s right not to know? The same research that supporters of menu mandates like to cite indicates that most consumers prefer to avoid calorie counts, enjoying their food in blissful ignorance. There’s a difference between informing people and nagging them.

And that’s really what the rule is all about.  Busy-bodies and nutrition nazis determined to badger the rest of us into eating they believe is best for us.  Which, alas, almost certainly means the bill will pass the California legislature.