This is why policy should be evidence based

I think I need to make a macro for this: I’ve been skeptical about menu labeling, not because I think the idea is bad, but because I‘m unconvinced that it will work in practice. All of those links tell you why. But there’s a new study in the American Journal of Public Health that adds to my concerns. “Supplementing Menu Labeling With Calorie Recommendations to Test for Facilitation Effects”:

Objectives. We examined the effect on food purchases of adding recommended calorie intake per day or per meal to the mandated calorie information posted on chain restaurant menus.

Methods. Before and after New York City implemented calorie posting on chain restaurant menus in 2008, we provided daily, per-meal, or no calorie recommendations to randomized subsets of adult lunchtime customers (n = 1121) entering 2 McDonald’s restaurants, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and collected receipts and survey responses as they exited. In linear and logistic regressions, with adjustment for gender, race, age, and day, we tested for simple differences in calories consumed and interactions between variables.

Researchers approached 1121 McDonald’s customers both before and after calorie posting began in New York City. Each had a random chance of being handed (1) information that described the recommended calories a man and woman should eat each day, (2) information that described the recommended calories a man or woman should eat each meal, or (3) nothing. The hypothesis was that giving people information about recommended intake would help them to make better choices about how much to order. After all, the whole menu labeling thing is based on the idea that giving people calorie information will reduce obesity.

The results are depressing. Giving people calorie recommendations didn’t change what people offered. In fact, although the result was not statistically significant (p=0.07), people who were given more calorie information ordered more calories. They also did lots of sub-analyses. For instance, looking only at those who were ordering full meals (instead of just drinks) yielded the same non-significant result. They also whether weight changed the result. If information caused overweight people alone to order fewer calories, that would still be a win. But that model still showed that more information led to more calories ordered (p=0.06).

Look, I don’t think that providing calorie information is evil. But it’s not an unequivocal good. It has costs for businesses, and compliance can be tricky. Studies like this add to evidence that it can also backfire. I have been, and remain, skeptical about its power as national policy. That belief is based on the evidence, not my gut. Policy should be made with the former, not the latter.


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