I really wish policy would be more research based

I’ve caught some flack here on the blog for my lukewarm support for menu-labeling. It’s not that I’m against policy to diminish obesity in America. It’s that I don’t think that the policies we are choosing are necessarily going to work. Menu-labeling is one such policy.

There are a number of people who think that the reason people order unhealthy food is because they don’t know what they are eating. So, if we tell them, then they’ll stop ordering that food. This is an answerable question, though. Will they?


Background: Nutrition labeling of menus has been promoted as a means for helping consumers make healthier food choices at restaurants. As part of national health reform, chain restaurants will be required to post nutrition information at point-of-purchase, but more evidence regarding the impact of these regulations, particularly in children, is needed.

Purpose: To determine whether nutrition labeling on restaurant menus results in a lower number of calories purchased by children and their parents.

Methods: A prospective cohort study compared restaurant receipts of those aged 6–11 years and their parents before and after a menu-labeling regulation in Seattle/King County (S/KC) (n=75), with those from a comparison sample in nonregulated San Diego County (SDC) (n=58). Data were collected in 2008 and 2009 and analyzed in 2010.

So the researchers got a number of families in two counties and measured their ordering in restaurants. Then, in one of the counties, they implemented menu-labeling. Later, they remeasured the ordering in both the county that not labeled, and the one that didn’t.

In the county where menu-labeling was implemented, calories ordered for children went from 823 on average to 822. In the county without labeling, calories ordered for children went from 984 on average to 949. Not impressive. The calories ordered by parents for themselves did drop in the labeling restaurants from 823 to 720, but they dropped in the non-labeling restaurants just as much, from 895 to 789.

Parents did say that they did see the nutrition information in the labeling restaurants. Some may hold this up as a good thing, but to be honest, it makes it all much worse. They saw the calorie information, but didn’t care. Or, at least they didn’t change their behavior because of it.

This doesn’t bode well for the future. If menu-labeling is the great hope for the obesity epidemic, then we may be very disappointed in how all this turns out.

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