Calorie Labeling Works, II

By Corby Kummer

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 know—everyone, 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 me—and 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 passed—should 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 say—one 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 counts—though 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 decrease—an 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.

I don't think I buy the explanations the study's authors gave the press: that customers fled Dunkin Donuts in panic when they saw how many calories are in (good) doughnuts versus (bad) muffins. The two chains are very different in their approaches to coffee (though not as much as you might think, and as I'll write about at a further date—I recently spent a fascinating day with the main coffee buyer at Dunkin headquarters) and food and pricing. And the study presented two facts that will give succor to calorie-labeling enemies: posting calories had a greater effect in richer zip codes; and people go to Starbucks for coffee, anyway, not food, so the study can't be extrapolated to fast-food chains and be the told-you-so that advocates of calorie labeling have been hoping for since last October.

Still, it's good news. And Starbucks, interestingly, isn't exactly crowing. Or it is, but only as a large-scale food company can when discussing an expensive change that laws forced it to make. From a BusinessWeek online story:

"Our Starbucks data in the Stanford study helped to raise visibility on the issue of a national menu labeling standard," Jill Knisley, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "Implementing a national or global standard is costly and complex. From our perspective, the regulations and standards should be uniform to enable customers to consistently compare products and make informed choices."

This cuts two ways—more information can damage Starbucks if customers decide to go someplace else once they see a rival's information, as they might have chosen to go to Starbucks rather than Dunkin Donuts in this example. But any company forced to spend a great deal to implement a mandatory regulation wants that regulation to apply to everyone—the real strategy of New York City's lead, and a strategy that's been working.

My own, and only semi-snarky question: what would happen to sales if Starbucks actually improved its food, calorie counts be damned? Since Starbucks took high-fructose corn syrup out of all its baked goods, the baked goods have gone from very bad to more or less inedible. Howard Schultz promised this would be the first thing he'd do when he came back to save the chain! I'm still waiting eagerly.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/01/calorie-labeling-works-ii/33298/