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.
Research in a fast-food restaurant in King County, Wash., where calorie labeling is also law, found similar results. The stated finding was grim: “Mandatory menu labeling did not promote healthier food-purchasing behavior.”
Another recent study shows what really worked was imposing a higher price — by way of a tax — on big-calorie items.
Loewenstein, in his editorial, cited just one “rigorous” study showing a positive effect: at Starbucks stores in New York City, where diners seeing calorie information reduced their intake — but only for food, not beverages. Researchers consider that result a bit of an outlier, theorizing that Starbucks consumers are more sensitive to nutritional information. “I’m sure the average BMI at Cheesecake Factory or McDonald’s is a lot larger than at Starbucks,” Loewenstein said, only half-joking.
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!).
“The long-term consequences are totally intangible,” Loewenstein said. “Eating has that in common with cigarettes: One cigarette is not going to kill you, and one big meal is not going to kill you. But the difference is, you need to eat to survive. So there’s an easy rule for the cigarette problem: Stop. There is no easy rule for eating. We must eat.”
In decades past, eating out was a treat — something couples or families did on Sundays or for a special occasion. It conveyed a sort of permission to consume too much food, nutritionists say. Today, eating out is a regular part of our diet, with more than one-third of total calories consumed at restaurants. What’s more, the plates are larger and the food is cheaper.
“People still think it’s a treat when they go out for a meal,” said Margaret Wootan, a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a key proponent of menu labeling. “We expect that when we eat out it will not be like when we eat at home. People naturally eat bigger portions when someone else is doing the cooking. But it’s not a treat to eat out. It’s a very regular part of our diet.”
And that includes fast-food meals, which often replace the more time-consuming sit-down meals at places like the Cheesecake Factory. At a McDonald’s in Rockville on a recent day, nearly every table was full. Being consumed: Big Macs (540 calories). Quarter Pounders (510). Large fries (500). A few salads, here and there. A few lower-calorie Snack Wraps.
Rick Branch, 52, stopped in for a quick lunch. Out of several diners interviewed, he was the only one who reported being influenced by the calorie count. He ordered a chicken Snack Wrap, staying below 300 calories. He felt positive about his order. He was being good. Asked when he started paying close attention to calories and nutrition data, Branch said, “More so since the heart attack.”