This morning, the FDA released long-awaited rules requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts. The rules appear considerably stiffer than most anticipated, and will cover movie theaters, some prepared foods in supermarkets, vending machines, and even alcoholic drinks.
All told, this is good news in the obesity wars. But it’s important to keep the news in perspective. The evidence doesn’t back up the claim that posting calorie counts will make a dent in the obesity epidemic. Aaron’s said as much many, many times here at TIE, much to the chagrin of some in the public health community. But it’s worth saying again. As I wrote in Slate back in 2011, when FDA was on the cusp of releasing proposed rules:
Since the mid-1990s, we’ve made food manufacturers print nutrition information, including calorie counts, on packaged foods. Time and again, however, studies show that few people notice nutritional information and even fewer use it effectively. As the FDA lamented in a 2004 report, “It may be that consumers do not take advantage of the available information on the food label to control their weight, perhaps because they do not appreciate how the information could be used for weight management purposes or perhaps because they find it too hard to apply the available information to such purposes.”
This shouldn’t be surprising. People may generally know that they should avoid excess calories, but they don’t often know how many are too many. Even if they do, many can’t do the math in their heads to tally the day’s calories, much less figure out which combination of dishes would stay within the daily limit. Parents who buy food for their children don’t typically keep track of the calories their kids ate earlier or will eat later. They may also have more pressing concerns than the calories in their kids’ lunches that day. And parents aren’t always in the loop. Adolescents often order their own food, and they rarely account for the long-term costs of what they eat.
Posting calorie counts works on the principle that giving people the right information will help them make good decisions. The same instinct motivates all sorts of mandatory disclosure regimes. Just tell people about risky mortgage terms, and they’ll borrow more wisely. Just tell patients about pills’ side effects, and they’ll make better choices about their meds. Just tell arrested suspects about their right to remain silent, and they’ll make smarter decisions about what to say to investigators. Yet with few exceptions, these sorts of informational solutions have failed dismally. Inundated by information that they can’t understand and don’t have time to process, people routinely ignore mandatory disclosures. And they’ll ignore calorie counts, too.
I don’t want to overstate the point. I’m glad that that FDA’s rule is as strong as it is. Calorie counts will help some people eat better. But we shouldn’t confuse the strength of these new regulations with their long-term effectiveness at reducing obesity. Consider this anecdote:
When Michelle Obama rolled out her Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity, the American Beverage Association—a trade group representing Pepsi, Coke, and other peddlers of liquid candy—trumpeted its ostensible support by announcing that its members would add calorie-count labels to the front of cans and bottles to make the information “clearly visible.” Yet the association has fought tooth and nail, and spent tens of millions of dollars, to kill any talk of a tax on sugary drinks. The soda companies can afford to post calorie counts because they know it won’t hurt sales. They know a soda tax might.
The FDA rule is a step in the right direction. But if we’re serious about reducing obesity in this country, we’re going to have to do a hell of a lot more.