It's been a good month for public health. At the beginning of September, Philadelphia reported a one-of-its-kind decline in childhood obesity rates. Earlier this week, the New York City Board of Health voted eight-to-one in favor of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on sugary beverages sized larger than 16 ounces. Now, McDonald's has announced plans to promote informed decision-making at its venues, most notably by way of labeling its restaurant menus with calorie counts. So is this a watershed moment, a definitive paradigm shift towards a healthier America? With the latest move from McDonald's, the jury is still out to lunch.
It's difficult to discern McDonald's benevolence from its bottom line. First, consumers are in favor of the proposed labeling: 68 percent in a study sample supported government regulations requiring restaurants to post calorie counts up front. The same study found that 51 percent of consumers are more likely to eat at those chains that label their menus. What dulls the shining example of McDonald's the most is learning that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would require them to label their menus anyways. As such, McDonald's is racking up points by posting the soon-to-be required calorie counts ahead of the curve.
But the inability to parse McDonald's true motives is less important than determining the effects of menu labeling on consumer health. What the piecemeal evidence shows is that calorie labeling does not have a large impact on consumer decision-making at the restaurant, at least in the short term. Past studies devised to investigate the impact of nutritional labels on food packaging found that consumers would comprehend more nutritional data about foods, but fail to act on this information in a consistent manner.
When New York City debuted its city-wide initiative requiring all chain restaurants to clearly label calories, researchers waited a year and compared the results to a comparable city. While survey respondents claimed the labels in New York City influenced their decision to consume fewer calories, restaurant receipts failed to register a decisive difference. Explanations abound: If you've already made the decision to buy fast food, perhaps menu labeling is unlikely to rain on your parade. It's also true that we already have preferences for menu items — years of advertising and experience have secured our favorites. Caloric labels may do little to nudge those preferences for the newer, healthier options.
Menu labeling can at best be more effective by influencing producer decision-making. Nutrition literacy is steadily increasing — indeed, this is a trend aided by the proliferation of calorie counters. As 300 and 500 and 930 calories continue to grow in relative meaning to consumers, the pressure is on chains to keep calorie counts low. In this way, the silver lining on menu-labeling is that it gives chains yet another mark they have to hit, another trend worth keeping up with.
It's important, however, to be wary of restaurant-produced data. The internal audit of McDonald's first nutrition progress report by Ernst & Young noted, rather cautiously, that “... Nutritional data are subject to inherent limitations, given the nature and the methods used for determining such data.” Establishing the caloric content of a food is not an exact science, and so gives skeptics some cause for concern. Where Enron cooked the books, it would not be unprecedented for McDonald's or another restaurant chain to not only cook the food, but the calorie counts.
In other words, the move towards self-imposed menu labeling is likely to beget more producer self-regulation. So we have to wait and see how McDonald's and other fast food giants shoulder their call to a healthier business model. Whatever their decision-making calculus, menu-labeling is one of the many tools of public-private cooperation that can bring us closer to a nation of healthy, happy individuals. I'm lovin' that.