An in turns tragic and hilarious report in last week’s Washington Post about the ineffectiveness of calorie labels in restaurants. As we’ve mentioned before, this happens to be one of the areas where the rubber of ‘rationality’ is most publicly and unavoidably hitting the road of human nature at the moment. Information, especially that of long term importance, simply doesn’t have the power to change behavior, to say nothing of motivation, as much as we might wish it did. The wallet is another matter entirely – at least when you tax fatty foods you’re playing on the same field of self-interest, chasing the ball of human appetite, aiming at the goals of immediate gratification (you get the idea…). In fact, the pragmatist in me would say that, right or wrong, it’s only a matter of time til we see an obesity tax pop up in various states, paving the way for a mass migration to Las Vegas, pun intended, ht BM:
Evidence is mounting that calorie labels — promoted by some nutritionists and the restaurant industry to help stem the obesity crisis — do not steer most people to lower-calorie foods. Eating habits rarely change, according to several studies. Perversely, some diners see the labels yet consume more calories than usual. People who use the labels often don’t need to. (Meaning: They are thin.)
Questions about the effectiveness of calorie disclosure come as the federal government is finalizing regulations to nationalize labeling in chain restaurants next year as part of a measure tucked into President Obama’s health-care law. Some chain restaurants are tweaking menus in anticipation, offering more low-calorie meals. Yet several high-cal eateries that operate in Montgomery — including the Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, Five Guys and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers — report no change in dining habits because of the labels.
“There is a great concern among many of the people who study calorie labeling that the policy has moved way beyond the science and that it would be beneficial to slow down,” said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University who studies calorie labeling. In a recent editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, he asked: “Given the lack of evidence that calorie posting reduces calorie intake, why is the enthusiasm for the policy so pervasive?”
You don’t need a pile of studies to tell you that people do not always do what is in their best interest. If humans were a fully rational species capable of using obvious information for obvious benefits, then millions of people every year would not keep forgetting to sign up for their 401(k) plans, nor would they eat an entire bag of Doritos when the label says the bag contains three servings.
“Consumers really should be using this information because it can be helpful to them,” said Lisa Harnack, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. After completing a study that showed most eaters did not operate as rationally as she expected, Harnack was heartsick. “I was optimistic we would find that people would make different choices based on having more information.”
In New York, the first big city to adopt menu labeling, NYU researchers studied the eating choices of low-income fast-food diners, focusing on those who saw the labels. “Even those who indicated that the calorie information influenced their food choices did not actually purchase fewer calories,” the study says.
Another recent study shows what really worked was imposing a higher price — by way of a tax — on big-calorie items.
Experts say that for most diners, the issue is not about having information but about lacking self-control. Behavioral economists have for years zeroed in on a logical hiccup: We are unable to balance short-term gains with long-term costs. Many humans are simply really, really impatient. With eating out, the gains are immediate (yummy giant burrito!) and the costs are delayed (staggering bills for heart disease!).