Last week Stanford University researchers released a study of the effect that calorie labeling has had at Starbucks. I was particularly interested for many reasons: first, because being a typical urban fast-food snob Starbucks is where I see calorie labeling, and where it has had an impact in my own buying patterns, and those of many people I knoweveryone, I'd say, I've ever talked to who goes to Starbucks.
Second, because a very widely publicized preliminary study of consumer behavior last fall triggered a wave of gleeful gotcha reactions saying that the whole exercise is a pointless waste of money, people won't change, they like high-fat food, and sanctimonious food-police types like meand for that matter my spouse, the health commissioner of Massachusetts, who was called "the state's irrepressible nanny-in-chief" by a local tabloid when he got a statewide calorie-labeling law passedshould stop preaching and, in true libertarian fashion, let people alone already.
This reductio ad absurdum simply consigns the poor to eternal obesity and malnutrition.
The most literary, and probably for that reason annoying, form of this argument I've seen appears in our very own new issue, I'm sorry to sayone of several egregious points in an attack on school gardens I'll have more to say about shortly. In it Caitlin Flanagan quotes the famous passage in Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier saying that "when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food"you want the solid sugar that the Industrial Revolution made affordable for every English factory worker, or the solid fat that U.S. corn and other subsidies make affordable for every low-paid or unemployed American worker. This reductio ad absurdum simply consigns the poor to eternal obesity and malnutrition, and short-circuits any government initiatives to improve health and make better food available to everyone. It's let-'em-eat-cake under the guise of libertarian realism.
I posted my own response to the gotcha chorus, which argued that the real reason for the laws is to change food-manufacturers' behavior, not individual consumers', and that Starbucks, in fact, had changed its default milk used in cappuccinos et al from full-fat to two percent. Yesterday came the official announcement of another policy the New York City health department has been working on for over a year, an attempt to make manufacturers reduce the sodium content in their foods by 25 percent over the next five years. Again, the aim is to change the environment and make all food choices for everyone less threatening to health (and again, my spouse is one of the policy's main supporters).
The Stanford study, which compared data from Starbucks stores in New York City against stores in Boston and Philadelphia, where calorie-labeling laws are going into effect (they did on January 1 in Philadelphia, and will this November in Boston) is the first widely noted sign that people do change their ordering behavior when they see calorie countsthough not the first, as New York City health department preliminary studies, and a new study at Yale, published last month, are showing. Starbucks customers reduced calories in their food (but not their drink) orders by 6 percent overall and, more dramatically, by 26 percent if they had previously been ordering high-calorie Starbucks items. Starbucks profits didn't decreasean answer to initial fears from food companies over labeling laws. But, unreassuringly for fast-food chains, sales at Starbucks stores within 100 meters of Dunkin Donuts stores increased by an average of three percent.