And a packet of crisps: calorie labels may have changed behaviour but not in the way expected
And a packet of crisps: calorie labels may have changed behaviour but not in the way expected

Do calorie counts on menus make a difference?

Fat chance, says Samuel Muston

Samuel Muston
Tuesday 10 November 2015 17:47
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It seemed, at the time, as though it was going to be a game-changer. In 2008, New York enacted a city-wide regulation that meant any chain restaurant with 15 or more outlets would have to disclose how many calories were in the food it was flogging to heavy-treading citizens. The idea was that people would make better choices if they knew the nutritional content of the food they were eating; large New Yorkers would be a thing of the past, along with 3,000-calorie milkshakes and burgers that had enough calories to sustain a rugby team for a long weekend. All you needed to change behaviour, so the thinking went, was to allow people to make informed choices.

It seemed a reasonable enough assumption. Seven years on, it seems to have had very little effect. That is what a new study by Jonathan Cantor, a PhD student at New York University, shows anyway. The study, published in Health Affairs, found similar restaurant chains in similar areas in New York and in New Jersey, where there are no such regulations. Cantor asked customers in each about their meal choices and paid them $2 for their receipts. He did this just after the regulation came into effect in 2008 and at several other times in 2013 and 2014. He found that calorie labels had one primary effect: they meant people saw and read calorie labels. He found very little to suggest they made people eat less calorific food.

Having the information that the spiced butternut squash latte with extra cream is going to make you resemble Father Christmas and still drinking it is either a sign of stupidity that mitigates for restricting the voting franchise, or else it is evidence of a full-throttle enjoyment of food. I hope it is the latter; I can empathise with that.

When I am feeling a little “worse for wear”, I revel in the calorie counts. A trip to Pret A Manger on an off-day is for me a bacchanalia of ham and mathematics. “Jambon-beurre sandwich? 355 calories. Hmmm, not nearly enough. Let's have that 600-calorie toasted cheese and ham number. With a bag of crisps on the side, oh, and one of those little lemon cakes.” A colleague on The Independent tells me that she uses the little calorie stickers in sandwich shops to ensure she has got enough to eat and so doesn't have to pop out come 3pm for a Viennese whirl with a Penguin biscuit chaser. Perhaps this accounts for New York's health resfuseniks? Maybe they all want a large breakfast/lunch so they don't have to pop out for a mid-afternoon reviver?

If you really want to change behaviour and get people down to their fighting weight, there is another alternative, which Cantor's report touches on, and which I have long thought would be the most sure-fire impediment to overeating. How about replacing the calorie labels with a little sticker telling you how long it would take to burn off that sandwich on a treadmill? Or, better still, how long it would take to shed the calories when you are sitting on the sofa. I know I would never look at a pepperoni pizza the same again if I knew it was going to take me two hours plus on a rowing machine to shift it.

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