NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Calorie Counts Don't Work

September 16, 2011

Obesity is a major issue -- a third of American children and two thirds of adults are obese or overweight.  So we must ask: how to fight it?  For many policymakers, the answer is better labeling.  But is that enough, asks David Gratzer a physician and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Calorie labeling, whereby restaurants post the calorie contents of their menu items, has become a cause de jour in the public health community.  But consider a quick review of the literature:

  • October 2009: Researchers from Yale and the NYU School of Medicine published a study in Health Affairs they touted as a "first look" at the impact of calorie counts in New York City. Result: "We did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling."
  • August 2010: Researchers from Stanford University and the National Bureau of Economic Research reviewed sales data for New York City Starbucks. They concluded: "Food calories per transaction fell by 14 percent (equal to 14 calories per transaction on average)" and beverage calories "did not substantially change" for a net calorie drop of just 6 percent per transaction.
  • January 2011: In the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers from Duke tracked buying decisions in Taco Time franchises after a Washington state county passed a mandatory calorie posting law. They found: "No impact of the regulation on purchasing behavior was found. Trends in transactions and calories per transaction did not vary between control and intervention locations after the law was enacted."
  • February 2011: The lead author of the first NYU study expanded on those results for the International Journal of Obesity, focusing on key groups: teens, parents and children in low-income neighborhoods. Result: "We found no statistically significant differences in calories purchased before and after labeling."

Calorie labeling is popular among policymakers but it just doesn't seem to work, says Gratzer.

Source: David Gratzer, "Calorie Counts Are a Dud," Frum Forum, September 12, 2011.


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