Yes, Calorie Labeling Works

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Image Courtesy of the New York City Health Department

I read the report on initial results of New York City's calorie-labeling laws in Monday's New York Times with more puzzlement than dismay. Why was the sample size (1156 people) so small? Why was the most recent data a year and a half old, just weeks after the city's calorie-labeling rules began? Why did the Times reporter go to one McDonald's in a poor neighborhood to do man-in-the-street interviews that seemed to have very little to relation to the study she was reporting on?

I read the study, whose lead author is Brian Elbel, of NYU, and talked to Cathy Nonas, director of nutrition programs for the health department (as did the Times reporter) and to other public-health advocates including our own Marion Nestle, who posted on this--and my own spouse, the Massachusetts commissioner of health and who passed the second statewide calorie-labeling law, after California. I'm hardly impartial!

But I did notice a number of limitations of the study aside from the ones that struck me when reading the initial story, many of which the authors themselves pointed out. And I got a better sense of the bigger picture of the real intention behind the regs, as public-health lingo calls regulations, and the effect they're already having--the picture and the importance that bloggers, the media, and the food industry have ignored as they've dug into the conclusions with a gotcha glee as if they hadn't had a meal of any number of calories in weeks.

Getting individuals to recalculate calories at the cash register was never the main point of the rules, and isn't now, when similar rules might be written into health reform. Public health is about protecting the whole public.

Data takes a long time to analyze, but this study is really preliminary--the reason, of course, it's gotten so much attention. The New York calorie-labeling rules began on March 31 of last year, with a grace period until July 19, when violations with penalties--fines--would be issued. Many McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Wendy's didn't actually start posting calories on menu boards until July 18. Even then, placement and font size were not what the city required; by the end of the year the menu boards looked much different and were more prominent than they were in July.

The before portion of the study was July 8, and the after portion was about a month later--just three weeks after the chains targeted (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC) starting posting calories. The sample size was small, 1156 people, and deliberately chosen from poor areas where obesity and diabetes are particularly severe--a logical choice, but also areas where people deliberately search for the most value for their money, meaning the most calories per dollar.

Here's the discouraging part, the point everybody picked up on:

About half of the NYC respondents in our postlabeling sample reported noticing calorie information, and only a quarter of these reported that the information influenced their food choices. Even those who indicated that the calorie information influenced their food choices did not actually purchase fewer calories according to our data collection. We note again that our study sample consisted primarily of racial and ethnic minorities residing in relatively low-income areas; other groups may respond differently to labeling.

The authors note that other groups might respond to labeling differently, but don't point out that half of the people in their survey noticing the information translates to millions of people--and that effect just a few weeks after the information was posted. They admitted that had they conducted the study later, the impact on behavior might have been greater and the results different, and that the smaller typeface and placement of the labels might have had a greater impact after the city brought the restaurants into compliance months later. They pointed out that after the study was done the city did begin an educational campaign on subways and in buses telling people that they should eat about 2,000 calories a day; that could have changed later behavior, too.

But getting individuals to recalculate calories at the cash register was never the main point of the rules, and isn't now, when similar rules might be made national and written into health reform--the main reason the Times article got such traction. Yes, it's extremely difficult to get people to change their eating habits--the first thing the authors pointed out in their conclusion, the first thing anyone on any side of the debate starts out with.

Public health is about protecting the whole public, not any subset, even if underserved and strongly affected subsets are of course its frequent focus. It's about making society safer and healthier. That's where it rubs plenty of people (like my libertarian colleague Megan) the wrong way. The nanny state is the cuddlier term for the fascist state, and activist health commissioners like Thomas Frieden, now the head of the CDC, and his successor, Thomas Farley, are pet targets of people who use the word "activist" as a smear.

New York City was ridiculed when it banned trans fats, as I pointed out in a piece asking what the fate of the doughnut would be after the ban. (It survived quite nicely--and, as calorie-labeling has made painfully clear, doughnuts frequently have many many fewer calories than healthful-seeming muffins, especially in the colossally caloric pastry cases at Starbucks). But, as Frieden, then the New York City health commissioner, pointed out when I talked to him about the ban, the real impact was on McDonalds and the other chains (yes, Dunkin Donuts) that, once they went to the expense of complying with New York's rules, would likely change production for the whole country or much of it.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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