In Defense of New Nationwide Calorie Counts

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A new provision in the health care reform bill would require calorie counts at all chain restaurants with more than 20 locations. The law (in PDF form here) requires labeling "in a clear and conspicuous manner" on menus and menu boards.

It's not clear what effect menu labeling has on consumer choice. Calorie postings didn't change eating habits in its first few months in NYC, according to this study. But as Atlantic Food editor Corby Kummer points out, Starbucks changed its default milk from whole to 2 percent because the calorie numbers from whole milk Frappuccinos were too embarrassing. A separate study found that average calories per transaction at Starbucks fell 6% after calories counts appeared on menus without affecting Starbucks' revenue.

The New York study that found calorie counts were failing to curb calorie intake focused on fast food chains in poor neighborhoods. But it seems to me that most people know that fast food has a lot of calories (and low-income neighborhoods are infamous for lacking enough healthy choices). Calorie statistics at fast food restaurants don't provide new information, really. They affix a number to something the patrons should already suspect: the food is nutritional garbage.

The kind of people who are most likely to be swayed by scary numbers in the high hundreds are the middle class "yuppies" Corby mentioned who get scared by the White Mocha Frappuccino figures and elect to stick with a large iced coffee instead; or see the calorie count of a Cosi Signature Salad and decide to go with the Hummus sandwich. There's no way to know exactly what impact this change will have. But I cannot believe that that the impact will be nil.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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