The usual case for mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus rests on the idea that customers want to make more informed decisions, but recalcitrant fast food companies refuse to give it to them. Hardees/Carl’s Jr. is one company that’s bet against that idea, and the bet has paid off marvelously. The company’s in-store sales and stock are booming. Here’s how the chain describes what its customers really want:
The Six Dollar Burger did well with customers and in 2002 won the Silver Skillet Award from Restaurant Business magazine. [CEO Andrew] Puzder saw the future. “I think a lot of this everybody’s-gonna-eat-healthy thing is more a concern of people in the media than a concern of people who come into our restaurants,” he says. Fast-food customers had indeed been clamoring for healthy alternatives, which prompted an industrywide stampede toward salads and orange slices, but just because customers wanted them on the menu didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to eat them. For all the buzz created by snack wraps and yogurt parfaits, burgers and fries remain the two most frequently ordered items in American restaurants, according to industry research group NPD Foodworld. In fact, the addition of salads at McDonald’s and other chains is partly aimed at drawing more burger-eating men by placating wives and girlfriends who would otherwise veto the restaurant choice. “What people say they want and what they do don’t match up,” says Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic, a food-industry research and consulting firm. “If they say, ‘I’m gonna order more salads,’ they’re going to order more french fries.” CKE marketing head Brad Haley, who looks a bit like a golfer with his short-sleeve shirt, goatee, and nascent paunch, echoes the sentiment. “People say what makes them feel better about themselves in surveys.”
Jacob Sullum notes that a study of Subway customers — likely a more health-conscious demographic than the average fast food buyer — aren’t reporting that prominent nutritional information affects their consumption:
Even so, only 12 percent of Subway customers in this study (i.e., 37 percent of 32 percent) said they noticed the calorie information and took it into account. This suggests that the vast majority of fast food customers are not very interested in nutritional information, as does the fact that most chains make it available without highlighting it in the way that the New York City health department thinks is appropriate. The restaurant business is highly competitive. If people are clamoring for impossible-to-ignore calorie counts, why don’t more restaurants voluntarily provide them as a way of attracting customers? A legal requirement is necessary not because diners want conspicuous nutritional information but because, by and large, they don’t want it. The information apparently does not enhance their dining experience and may even detract from it. Perhaps they prefer to enjoy their food without being reminded about what it may be adding to their waistlines.
This, I think, gets it exactly right. If you’re a paternalist about eating decisions, you can argue for bludgeoning people over the head with information about why they should order the salad instead of the burger. But there’s not much evidence that consumers are denied information they seek and that their health will improve when they get it. Keep in mind also that the effectiveness of mandated calorie counts can’t be measured merely by what people order in the restaurant; those who indulge in richer fare may compensate by having lighter meals at other times during the day.
[Hardees link via Ezra Klein’s unlinkable link blog.]