Labeling Our Menus; Changing Our Choices

By Jenny Orgill, staff editor When New York City passed its menu labeling law in 2008, nutritionists were excited to see how improved health information would affect consumers’ choices. They hoped for healthier food options, reduced consumption, less obesity, and less diabetes. In the wake of the New York City law, counties across the country began passing similar requirements for restaurants.

The results of such laws have been discouraging. After King County, Washington passed a similar law, one study compared seven restaurants in King County to seven restaurants outside of King County. The results showed that the menu labeling had no effect on number of transactions or calories per transaction. Researchers have found similar evidence in New York and in other locations throughout the United States.

Part of the 2010 Health Care Reform Law required that the FDA create rules for mandatory menu labeling. The FDA recently passed such rules that require restaurants with 20 or more locations to place menu labels displaying calorie information “clearly and prominently” on their menus. The rules also apply to vending machines and convenience stores, but not to movie theatres.

However, evidence suggesting that menu labeling does not affect consumer behavior raises the question of whether the government should be requiring these changes at all. Dr. Eric Finkelstein, a prominent obesity scholar, suggests that if consumers really demanded the information on menu labels, then markets would adjust and provide the information on their own. He suggests, however, that consumers do not demand this information, which is why the labels have no effect on their consumption choices.

Other food scholars, like Marion Nestle, postulate that perhaps the problem with menu labels is that restaurants do not display them clearly, often using small and difficult to read font. She argues that menu labels have educational value even if they do not have a proven effect on caloric intake. Since most people underestimate the number of calories in restaurant food, this information will require that they are informed and thus responsible for their consumption.

Since menu labeling is a new phenomenon, researchers conducted these studies relatively soon after the introduction of such labeling laws. However, consumption routines and choices are difficult to change. Researchers should take the challenges of such changes into account and monitor the longer-term impact of menu labeling on caloric intake.


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