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Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants?
‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences

Almost four years ago, in a piece we wrote for National Review as the health care law was being debated, we revealed that mandatory calorie counts had been slipped into the bill. We asked, When Did Restaurant Regulation Creep into the Health-Care Bill?

We pointed out that calorie counts mandated by the law were of dubious utility and that the issue had not even been debated on a national level:

The specific problem is that there is not the slightest scintilla of evidence that making such information available changes behavior. California has health warnings so ubiquitous that everyone seems to ignore them. The government mandated that private companies make substantial expenditures to make sure that fresh foods have country-of-origin labeling on them. This was done at the behest of U.S. producers who thought such labeling would swing business to them. Yet there is no evidence that consumers have changed purchasing habits.

Because the cost of executing this new nutritional-labeling requirement is paid by the private sector, it doesn’t show up when the Congressional Budget Office scores the cost of the bill — but a cost it is. Since we have no reason to think there is any effect to this new labeling requirement, we can presume that lots of money will wind up being spent with little or no effect.

Besides, what if some people would prefer to simply enjoy an occasional indulgence without being reminded of the caloric intake involved in a vichyssoise? Is that really behavior so beyond the pale that it should be made illegal in restaurant chains? Look ahead and suppose the very likely result: disclosure and education don’t produce the desired outcome. How long until the Feds will outright ban high-calorie foods?

When did we have the national debate that disclosures with our tuna-salad sandwiches from the supermarket deli are urgently required? When did we discuss that diverting resources to pastrami-on-pumpernickel is prudent — and if the health-care bill deals with such minutiae, what else is hidden in its pages? And how could any “leader” worthy of the name risk voting for it before we know what is even in the bill?

It is a conceit of societal elites to believe that they know what is right for other people and that if other people are not doing what said elites would prefer, it must be due to ignorance and the ignorant need to be enlightened.

Yet, time and again, people exhibit their own preferences for their own reasons, so what was previously simply not supported by evidence is now actually refuted by evidence. It turns out that posting calorie counts at McDonald’s does not lead people to buy lower calorie items even when supplemented with caloric recommendations. That is the lesson to be learned from a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health titled, Supplementing Menu Labeling With Calorie Recommendations to Test for Facilitation Effects:

Objectives. We examined the effect on food purchases of adding recommended calorie intake per day or per meal to the mandated calorie information posted on chain restaurant menus.

Methods. Before and after New York City implemented calorie posting on chain restaurant menus in 2008, we provided daily, per-meal, or no calorie recommendations to randomized subsets of adult lunchtime customers (n=1121) entering two McDonalds restaurants, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and collected receipts and survey responses as they exited. In linear and logistic regressions, with adjustment for gender, race, age, and day, we tested for simple differences in calories consumed and interactions between variables.

Results. Posting calorie benchmarks had no direct impact, nor did it moderate the impact of calorie labels on food purchases. The recommendation appeared to promote a slight increase in calorie intake, attributable to increased purchases of higher-calorie entrées.

Conclusions. These results do not support the introduction of calorie recommendations as a means of enhancing the impact of posted calorie information or reducing the contribution of restaurant dining to the obesity epidemic.

The consumer press has picked up on the study, as in this piece by Karen Kaplan (not the one from Frieda’s, whose last name begins with a C), which is titled Attempt to Steer McDonald’s Diners toward Smaller Meals Backfires:

You might think that customers buying their lunch at McDonald’s would order meals with fewer calories if someone handed them a slip of paper reminding them that women should eat no more than 650 calories at lunchtime and men should not exceed 800 calories. But you would be wrong.

Instead, researchers found that diners who received these supposedly helpful reminders actually purchased more calories than those who didn’t, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study authors — from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Cornell University’s Department of Applied Economics and Management — stood outside two McDonald’s restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They approached diners on their way in and asked them to save their receipts and conduct a short interview after they ate their lunch.

In addition, some diners were handed information on the number of calories men and women should eat at lunch, and some were given information on the total number of calories men and women should eat in an entire day. A control group was not given any advice on the calorie front.

When they had finished their meals, diners were asked to estimate how many calories they had consumed. Those estimates were compared with the actual calories purchased, according to the receipts. The researchers also collected demographic information like age, gender, ZIP Code of residence and height and weight (to calculate each person’s body mass index).

Among the 1,094 diners included in the study analysis, the women who ate lunch (not just a drink or dessert) purchased an average of 824 calories and the men purchased 890 calories. Assuming they ate and drank everything they bought, the men consumed 11% more calories than they should have, on average. The women splurged even more — they downed 27% more calories than recommended, on average.

The researchers expected that the diners who got slips of papers with calorie advice to order lower-calorie meals than the diners who got no such guidance. Instead, they found that the recommendations had no effect on the way customers used the calorie information posted on menus.

Even worse, diners who got the slips of papers ordered higher-calorie entrees than diners who didn’t — 49 more calories, on average. The difference wasn’t great enough to be statistically significant, but it was close, according to the study.

It’s not exactly shocking that giving people the information they needed to order the right amount of food didn’t work. After all, it’s hard for anyone to stick to the rules when confronted with the aroma of McDonald’s French fries. But how did this seemingly sensible idea wind up making things worse?

The study authors have a theory. Perhaps their plan backfired because people compared the calorie count of their entree to the calorie information on their slip of paper and got “a false sense of staying within the calorie allowance,” they wrote. That, in turn, may have made them feel safe ordering a bigger soda or to supersize their fries. A Big Mac packs 550 calories, which doesn’t sound so bad, until you add in 500 calories for large fries and 280 calories for a large Coke.

A previous study that tested the value of posting calorie information on menus found that it did steer diners toward lower-calorie meals. But in that study, conducted at a Subway sandwich shop, it only worked for customers who had a healthy BMI, not those who were overweight.

The authors of the new study speculated that they got different results because Subway and McDonald’s “have different reputations for healthful fare, and, as a result, may attract different clientele.”

But that hardly made them optimistic that their approach would work better under different circumstances. “The results provide little hope that calorie recommendations will salvage the apparent weak or nonexistent effect of menu labeling,” they concluded.

We would say that consumers are actually behaving completely rationally. There is no evidence that reducing caloric intake in one particular meal has any effect at all on health or longevity. So, as an isolated action, to respond to a flyer by depriving oneself of something one wants is irrational since one is undergoing a deprivation for no known benefit.

Now, of course, deciding to transform one’s lifestyle to live more healthily may indeed have benefits — although quantifying that isn’t as easy as it sounds — but that is a big decision to make while walking into McDonald’s for lunch.

So is it a good law? Well, some would argue that even if it is not effective overall, certain individuals who have decided to reduce caloric intake benefit as their making decisions is facilitated by the law. Indeed, one reason it might not be effective at McDonald’s is that people looking to reduce caloric intake don’t gravitate there.

Of course, others would argue that it is supposed to be a free country. If a chain doesn’t want to reveal its calorie count, nobody makes consumers go eat there; that the whole issue is a kind of “nanny state” approach that has no business in a nation of free people.

We keep thinking of Marks & Spencer’s efforts to discourage people from buying air-freighted produce with its associated carbon footprint. M&S stickered each item with a jet plane as a kind of warning. Our focus groups, however, indicated that consumers saw the jet plane as a signal that the produce was “jet fresh” and were more favorably inclined to purchase it.

Maybe the reason calorie consumption went up when the recommendations were given is that it focused attention on the calorie counts and, when focused, people felt that more was better, that in the refueling mission of grabbing a meal at McDonald’s, they wanted more calories or perceived a higher calorie meal as a better deal.

Alas, ineffectiveness is not considered a good reason to repeal a law. Thus country-of-origin labeling proceeds, and the attendant costs are incurred, without any evidence that having such information impacts consumer purchase decisions at all.

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