I wrote last summer about menu labeling of calorie counts, and questioned whether they would influence diners to make healthier choices. This week, a widely reported study of a New York City law mandating menu labeling in chain restaurants revealed that low-income diners didn’t order lower-calorie meals when confronted by the calorie counts, when compared with New York diners before the law was passed and with diners in Newark, which doesn’t have mandatory labeling. The study undercuts a major notion behind menu labeling: that, when confronted with mammoth calorie counts, diners will choose healthier options.The researchers and experts were baffled at the study results.
I think that all of these articles miss the point. The most immediate effect to posting calorie info is that it allows the customer to calculate the cost of the calories. He can figure how many calories per dollar he can buy. Or if he needs 500 calories to satisfy his appetite, then he can choose the dish that gets him those calories most cheaply.
The obvious consequence of this is that low-income customers would use the info to buy more calories for their dollar. The high-income customers would not care so much.
It is like supermarket unit pricing. The low-income customers use the unit price labels to buy cheaper generic foods, while the high-income customers are more likely to ignore the unit price and buy a brand name.
This is exactly what the study shows.
The experts make the mistake is that they assume that poor people will think that low calorie dishes are healthier, and therefore be willing to pay more money for them. That seems crazy to me. The low calorie dishes are not necessarily healthier, and the poor are the least likely to pay extra for them even if they were. If poor people want to cut calories, they just buy less and eat less.