Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Want to Eat Healthier?Politicians are Trying to Help

By Lisa YuPublished June 18, 2018

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Over the past few years, calorie labeling on menus in many restaurants has become the standard after the federal government passed a new food labeling law that became effective on December 1, 2015. While it seems like this is a great idea, does this regulation really having the positive effect we're hoping for?
6/18/18

You've probably noticed a change on the menus of your favourite restaurants in the last few years. As you take a moment to peruse your choices, the calorie counts of each item catch your eye. It has now been a few years since the Food and Drug Administration ruled that all restaurants and food vendors with over 20 locations must label their menus with certain nutrition information, such as a calorie count. Over the years, calorie labeling on menus has become standard, but it may not be having the positive effect we are looking for. While the need for obesity reducing measures is high, there are still issues with this legislation that we have yet to confront.
There are several obvious benefits of the menu labeling requirement. Calorie labeling on menus provides consumers with a tool with which they can make more informed meal choices. The average person consumes one third of their calories in restaurants despite eating out only 5 meals a week, so choosing the right foods at restaurants can have a significant impact on a person's health. From a public health perspective, this regulation has the potential of reducing obesity rates and even lowering healthcare costs in the long run if it works. The need for wide scale preventative measures to reduce obesity in America is incredibly high as well. National health surveys found that 70.2% of the American population was obese or overweight in 2014, putting these individuals at a greater risk for many diseases and creating a burden on the healthcare system.
While the menu labeling law is a step forward in public health policy, the results of this policy are too inconclusive to make a statement about its efficacy.  Similar regulations had already been enforced in several American jurisdictions prior to 2015, and studies have been conducted to determine whether calorie labeling changed human behaviour. One particular study found that consumers ordered 6% fewer calories when labels were present. A review of many different studies found, however, that 75% of researchers saw no difference in consumer behaviour when faced with labeled and unlabeled menus. As a result of this ambiguity, it can't be shown that the menu labeling law has led to actual behavioural changes.  
There are negative side effects to consider when assessing the efficacy of this policy as well. An obsession with calorie counting is linked with unhealthy eating behaviours, and calories become impossible to ignore when they are posted so prominently and pervasively on menus. Psychotherapist Diane Barth notes that calorie counts can create a sense of shame when eating and even worsen pre-existing eating disorders. The focus on calorie counting for health misses the complete picture as well; nutrition is far more than simply regulating calorie intake. The Harvard School of Public Health notes that the quality of the nutrients we take in are just as important as the quantity. They find that managing macronutrient (e.g. fat, carbohydrate and protein) intake is an important part of weight loss. While the federal menu labeling law is meant to mandate nutrition labeling in food establishments, this has mostly translated into posting caloric information next to menu items. Health-conscious consumers are now incentivized to make their meal decisions solely in caloric information and may simply choose the lowest calorie option without regard to nutrient content. Restaurants are now similarly motivated, and may now develop lower-calorie menu options without regard to nutritional content in order to appeal to consumers. As a result of these factors, the menu labeling law may ultimately cause harm to our physical and mental health in the long run.
Since there are so many potential negative repercussions of this policy without positive results to show for the change, it is time to begin improving upon the current menu labeling law. Perhaps macronutrient information could be displayed alongside calorie counts in order to give a more holistic view of nutrition, or nutrition information and guidelines could have its own dedicated page. Programs could be implemented that educate Americans about making healthy food choices and nutrition by utilizing menu labels as a tool for better decision making. In addition to updating the policy, more research must also be completed to determine the true impact of menu labeling. There are many ways menu labeling can be adapted to become even more effective at preventing obesity, making it is an exciting time to delve into the world of public health and nutrition.