Menu Laws: Still A Load Of Bologna

      15 Comments on Menu Laws: Still A Load Of Bologna

In a previous post, I ranted about the idiotic laws being passed in some states that force restaurants to list calorie counts right on the menu.  This is some of what I wrote:

Here’s how the politicians and the nutrition-nannies believe those calorie-count menu boards will make us thinner:

  • Fat Customer waddles into McDonald’s, intending to order a Double Quarter Pounder value meal.
  • Fat Customer is confronted with the calorie count, right there on the menu board where he can’t possibly miss it.
  • Fat Customer says to himself, “Oh my gosh! I had no idea there were so many calories in this meal! I’m going to order a Filet-O-Fish and a bottle of water.”
  • Fat Customer is satisfied with this low-calorie meal and, thanks to the menu board, begins eating low-calorie meals at restaurants from this point forward.
  • Fat Customer loses weight, as do millions of other fat customers.
  • The obesity epidemic is solved. Rates of heart disease, cancer, and type II diabetes plummet. Medicare expenditures drop by 50 percent.
  • Millions of formerly-obese citizens march on Washington to express their gratitude. Hallelujah, hallelujah! All praise the wise and wonderful politicians and Kelly Brownell and CSPI for saving us from our ignorance and gluttony!

After theorizing what will probably happen if forcing a fat person to look at the calories actually does inspire him to order a smaller meal (he’ll go home, kick the dog, and eat a bag of Doritos and a pint of Chunky Monkey), I suggested the most likely outcome of calorie-count laws: 

  • Fat Customer waddles into McDonald’s, intending to order a Double Quarter Pounder value meal.
  • Fat Customer is confronted with the calorie count, right there on the menu board where he can’t possibly miss it.
  • Fat Customer says to himself, “I don’t give a @#$%. I’m famished, and I want the Double Quarter Pounder value meal.”

Surprise, surprise … that seems to be exactly what’s happening.  As the New York Times reported, a recent study concluded that menu laws aren’t inspiring people to eat smaller meals:

The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken – in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.

Let’s see, what can we say about this result? I believe the word I’m looking for is … DUH!!! 

Calorie counts for fast-food restaurants are already available in diet books, on the internet, on placemats in the restaurants, and in nutrition guides sitting on the counter.  The people who actually care about calorie-counts have already found them.  The reverse is also true:  the people who haven’t found them already don’t care.

I’ve never understood why government busy-bodies have such faith in the power of warning labels to influence behavior.  Go into any bar in California, and you’ll see a big sign inside warning that excess alcohol consumption can cause birth defects.  That’s true, of course, but who exactly is this sign for?  I guess we’re supposed to believe lots of conscientious pregnant women wander into bars, all ready to order a double boiler-maker, then read that sign and say, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that!  Thanks for the warning.  Give me an orange juice.”

Newsflash:  the kind of woman who would get drunk while pregnant isn’t going to be swayed by a sign.  Neither will the kind of people who would rather load up on sugar and starch than be healthy. 

These nanny-state laws are based on two assumptions: 1) People are stupid and don’t know when they’re over-eating, and 2) if the government insists the stupid people are informed exactly how much they’re eating, they’ll wise up and eat less.  Both assumptions are wrong.

If you saw Fat Head, you remember the street scenes where I showed people a Double-Quarter Pounder large combo and asked if it was a high-calorie meal or a low-calorie meal.  Naturally, they all said it was a high-calorie meal.  What I didn’t show (not enough screen time for everything) is that when I asked people to guess the actual calorie count, most of them guessed too high

People just aren’t that stupid; they know they’re getting a lot of calories when they order these meals.  They also don’t care:

Tameika Coates, 28, who works in the gift shop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ordered a Big Mac, 540 calories, with a large fries, 500 calories, and a large Sprite, 310 calories. “I don’t really care too much,” Ms. Coates said. “I know I shouldn’t, ’cause I’m too big already,” she added with a laugh.

Naturally, the food evangelists can’t just admit their grand scheme was a huge flop:

New York City health officials said that because the study was conducted immediately after the law took effect, it might not have captured changes in people’s behavior that have taken hold more gradually.

Riiiiiggght … if you shove the calorie-counts in a fat person’s face, it may take a year or two before it all sinks in and he says to himself, “Hey, wait a minute … I shouldn’t be eating this much.  Give me a salad.”

Perhaps we’re just seeing the health nannies express a belief that, as I pointed out in Fat Head, seems to be dearly held by the type of people who loved Super-Size Me:  poor people are stupid.  Here’s The Guy From CSPI saying more or less exactly that:

“Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people, who are probably the least amenable to calorie labeling,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group in Washington.

Uh … Michael, who exactly is amenable to calorie-labeling?  Well-educated rich people?  These laws were championed as a way to “help” poor people who eat too much fast food to make smarter choices, remember?  Surely it’s time to just give up.  But noooooo:

Nutrition and public health experts said the findings showed how hard it was to change behavior, but they said it was not a reason to abandon calorie posting.

Let’s see … we imposed an expensive and complicated program on the restaurants that failed to produce anything remotely resembling the results we predicted, but there’s no reason to abandon our approach.  Brilliant.  But hey, that’s the beauty of being in government:  other people pay for your mistakes, so why not keep making them?  Or as the economist Milton Friedman once said, only in government is failure viewed as a reason to keep doing the same thing, only more of it.

And that’s my biggest fear … they will keep doing more of it:

Calorie posting has even entered the national health care reform debate, with a proposal in the Senate to require calorie counts on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants.

Anyone want to place odds on the likelihood that the Senate will see what happened in New York and conclude that menu laws are a waste of time and money?  I’ll bet you dollars to donuts they don’t — and you can keep the donuts even if I win.  No, they’ll probably just come to the same conclusion this guy did:

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

Not enough?!  That’s the scariest statement in the whole article.  Lord only knows what the food evangelists will try next.

(Hat tip to Adam, who sent me a link to the NYT article.)

If you enjoy my posts, please consider a small donation to the Fat Head Kids GoFundMe campaign.

15 thoughts on “Menu Laws: Still A Load Of Bologna

  1. TonyNZ

    “Not enough?! That’s the scariest statement in the whole article. Lord only knows what the food evangelists will try next.”

    Roll in the comments hypothesising what that might be. The most outrageous one wins…

    The prize, you can weep in the corner with the rest of us when you realise that the outrageous hypothesis you mentioned has a finite possibility of happening.

    That’s the thing; my comedian friend Tim Slagle and I used to make fun of government busy-bodies by creating what we thought were exaggerated scenarios, only to have reality catch up a few years later. You can’t out-stupid these people.

    We produced several scenes featuring the Health Care Police, running around busting people for unhealthy behaviors that cost the government-run system money (slogan: “Health Care Criminals steal from all of us.”) … we’ll see if that was an exaggeration or not.

  2. Rachel

    This is truly frightening. I recently moved back to my home state (Maine) and was shocked that they charge more money for some foods with higher fat content. I’ll just use dairy for example: the cost of milk goes up – skim being the cheapest, and scaling up to whole being 40-60 cents more. I’m also reminded of programs that help feed low income mothers and children (WIC) only allow fat-free/low fat dairy but juice is ok! Us poor folk sure is stupid! Now we don’t even have to read those fancy lables with the number writings!

    The more we try to help the poor, the worse off they seem to get. Politicians should be required to take the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.

  3. Fred Hahn

    Hey Tom –

    Great blog post.

    Thought: A better bit of info to put up on the menu at fast food restuarants is:


    Now that might actually make people take notice.

  4. tina

    But Tommmm, don’t you think if the McDonalds menus had the calorie counts on them that poor Morgan Spurlock wouldn’t have gotten fat during his documentary?? (snicker)

    Hadn’t thought of that. Poor guy was a victim of an under-regulated industry.

  5. Dave, RN

    These kind of interventions are all about “making the effort”. That is, you see that there is some sort of problem, then you have to do something. So you post calorie counts, then you can say how you are educating the consumer about diet. So there, you’ve “made the effort”. It’s also called “lip service”. I see it all the time in the healthcare industry.

    Yup … I view politicians as being like the quack doctor who rushes in and bleeds the patient. The patient dies, and the quack says, “Well, at least I did something.”

  6. Kimberly Birch, Nutrition & Weight Loss Coach

    Tom, thanks for another great post! I agree with your scenario 100%. I WAS that fat customer, and I knew very well the calories, fat and carb contents of those foods and I STILL ordered the Quarter Pounder meal. Knowing that information did not make a bit of difference. All this legislation is doing is costing restaurants a lot of unnecessary money.

    And that cost will be passed on to the people who eat there.

  7. Sara

    If the politicians really wanted to meddle in fast-food offerings and do something useful, they could try mandating that they have to allow, without charge, swapping out a healthier choice in a combo, where the healthier choice and the less healthy choice are offered separately at the same price (or the healthy one is cheaper). As an example, McDonald’s offers a side salad on the dollar menu, along with small fries, but they usually (sometimes you can wheedle them into it) won’t let you sub the salad for the MEDIUM fries in a combo, and ordering separately costs more than the combo cost. Obviously that’s a change that could come from the corporation, and probably should, especially since nobody is forcing me to go to McDonald’s at all, much less mandating that I have to have a side with my bunless burger or have a diet soda instead of water, but if the government can’t resist meddling — and the evidence sure seems to show that they can’t — at least they’d actually be accomplishing something.

    I’m afraid you’re right … they can’t resist meddling.

  8. Dan

    Insanity is doing the same thing over & over again and expecting different results. “Not enough” is just more insanity.

    As an aside, I was in the MEN’S restroom of a well know chain restaurant and saw the warning sign about pregnant women consuming alcohol. Next time I use the restroom there, I’ll have to check for pregnant women first. 🙂

    I can only imagine the conversation that led to that one … “And if the pregnant lady isn’t convinced by our sign, maybe we can get her boyfriend to take her drink away.”

  9. Shelley

    Well you’ll love this; the NZFSA (New Zealand Food Safety Authority – yes its a govt department!) is planning with its Australian counterpart to introduce Traffic Light Labelling on all our food. Red, amber or green circles next to the amounts of total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt will let us know at a glance whether the food is “healthy” or not. Of course, this is going to put an end to obesity in little ole NZ….

    That will no doubt work the same wonders as the American Heart Association seal of approval here.

  10. pjnoir

    NYC has to post calories (I wish Carbs). When I go to ball games, I notice that I get a smaller size every time- its junk food ball park stuff but when you go with your son, allowances must be made. I think it helps but I’m diabetic and manage my food choices 24/7, okay sometimes 22/7.

    I find it easy to avoid carbs, whether they’re listed or not. I just skip all sugar and starch. But yeah, sometimes at a ballgame, I make exceptions.

  11. Ramona Denton

    Great Post!! Maybe the MORE they will do will look something like what they do for undercooked meat… Whenever I order my steak rare, I get a speech about how undercooked my steak will be, but if I say OK, they’ll bring it to me rare.

    So, maybe something like this:
    I’ll have the QP value meal.
    Are you aware that the QP value meal contains 2,000 grams of saturated fat? People who eat 2,000 grams of saturated fat in a single meal may experience high blood pressure, heart palpitations, or erectile dysfunction… Is that OK?

    I’m sure verbal warnings are on CSPI’s wish list.

  12. Steve


    Looking forward to getting a copy of your film! (I just ordered it on Amazon)

    I’m going to go against the grain here a little bit and say that more information is not a bad thing. The idea behind providing calorie counts may not be working yet, but I think there are quite a few factors at play here:

    1) Most people (as you mentioned), at McDonalds are not consciously trying to reduce their caloric intake, and they don’t know how many calories they should have to lose weight. If we use the premise of FatHead vs SuperSize Me, the primary difference was your daily caloric intake, right? Macronutrient ratios aside, if there was a 3000 calorie difference between your diet and Spurlocks, having the calories on the menu would save you quite a bit of extra work, to find this information and total it up. If you think that this is a small amount of work, I’d argue that any additional work to find the nutritional information for the average consumer (even me, who is not the average), is too much. We simply can’t expect every consumer to go to the internet and look these up before going to lunch. So in theory, the idea isn’t totally off base.

    2) I recently found a menu for the Cheesecake Factory that listed all the calorie counts. I was shocked to see that the two of the tuna dishes on the menu were well over 1600 calories. Now this information can often show that even our intuition can be way off at times, and it actually might serve to hold restaurants more accountable for the types of meals they are serving. Portion sizes are amongst the biggest problems today, and perhaps if part of the responsibility was placed upon the restaurant, the consumer wouldn’t have to be so informed all the time. So, while I can understand the resistance to more regulation, I don’t see putting calorie counts on menus as something harmful.

    3) Our decisions are made in a split second in many cases. We look at a menu and decide what we want to eat using the information we are given. Usually this is a photo, a description and price. You are right, for those who aren’t trying to lose or maintain a healthy weight, this information may go ignored, but for those who are (and there are a lot of people who are usually “dieting”), this info at the point of purchase is a game changer, IMO. It allows us one more piece of information to compare a Big Mac meal to a Cheeseburger meal, which sometimes is all we need to make that split second decision when were are fighting against temptation. I won’t say all the time, but at least it’s a tool on our side. And in this environment we need all the tools we can get!

    So all of this assumes you buy into the notion that excess calories is causes most of the obesity problems — or would you prefer carbs to be listed? I would suggest that calories make more of a difference than carbs, despite the roll simple carbs may play in the issue.

    I don’t think this idea is the end-all be all, but I think it is just another attempt to help consumers eat just a little less each day. A lot of things still need to change, so trial and error shouldn’t be too harshly criticized.

    Just some food for thought (0 calories)!

    I still have some problems with menu laws. For one, they’re clearly not changing eating behavior, as demonstrated by a recent study. That doesn’t surprise me, since people who are motivated to lose weight go find the info, and people who don’t aren’t motivated to lose weight.

    But the other reason — the more important reason to me, as a libertarian who values freedom above all — is that it’s none of the government’s business, regardless of whether you or I think calorie counts displayed on menus are a good idea. I’d be against these laws even if people did respond to them by eating less. Health in this country would vastly improve if we outlawed sugar and HFCS, but I’d be against that law as well.

  13. vandervecken

    I know I’m late to this party, but I can’t help pointing out how this article summed itself up in one sentence:

    “Nutrition and public health experts said the findings showed how hard it was to change behavior, but they said it was not a reason to abandon calorie posting.”

    In other words, they know it’s hard to change behavior, and prove it by refusing to change their behavior! Recursive Fail! Ha!

  14. Marcus

    Oops, turns out the conclusion that menu labeling is stupid might have been a bit premature:

    What are the chances we see Tom devote a post talking about these new studies which disconfirm his prior-held belief? My guess? 0%.

    I apologize for my previous position on menu laws. You are 100% correct as always, Marcus. Clearly these studies prove that when labels encourage people to eat less during a restaurant single meal (especially the study in which the total dropped by a stunning 15 calories per entree on average), that automatically translates to people eating less throughout the week and losing weight. This of course explains why the 1990s laws requiring nutrition labels and recommended daily intakes on all packaged food products led to such a dramatic reduction in obesity.

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