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October 6, 2009

Ignoring the Label

The NYT reports on a study looking at the effectiveness of New York City's new fast-food calorie labeling law. Results: not good.

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.
Whoops. This study is important for all sorts of reasons. But it's most significant for the fact that it looked at labeling's effect on low income consumers -- exactly the demographic that is both most price-sensitive and most likely to live in so-called "food swamps," neighborhoods with many unhealthy food options and few healthy ones. Calorie-labeling no doubt has a role to play. But if you need to fill your stomach and price is the only issue, a label is all too easy to ignore.

The study adds momentum to the idea that addressing the obesity epidemic will require other interventions like taxes, subsidies, zoning and regulations on nutritional content. These may all seem draconian and "un-American," but it's appearing likely that they'll be more effective in forcing people to change their behavior -- and that's the name of the game.

Photo by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} used under a CC license

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