Doubts on calorie counts

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.

See also the recent columns from Radley Balko and Steve Chapman, or this blog’s previous posts on the topic.

[Hardees link via Ezra Klein’s unlinkable link blog.]


4 thoughts on “Doubts on calorie counts”

  1. I won’t really get into the issue here again, except to say that I see a lot of obvious problems with the way conclusions are drawn from these observations. We’ve been over the reasons why.

    What I did want to say is that this very morning I avoided breakfast at Burger King (at the airport) as a direct result of posted calorie information. It was a useful reminder of the previous decision-making I’ve done on the issue of fast food. At very least there’s some direct anecdotal evidence that posting nutrition information CAN be useful.

    Notice also that it led to me AVOIDING the restaurant, which I think undercuts the point made by Sullum. “If people are clamoring for impossible-to-ignore calorie counts, why don’t more restaurants voluntarily provide them as a way of attracting customers?” Because it will lead to fewer customers if their food choices aren’t also healthy.

  2. This is merely about providing easy to access information about food products in places where people can easily access them. Just because most people don’t care doesn’t mean the information is inappropriate or not worthwhile. I doubt most people look at the sides of food boxes to read the information listed there either, but it allows those consumer who are interested to quickly and easily gauge whether it’s a product they might want to buy. Do you oppose mandatory nutrition information on regular supermarket food products as well?

    My libertarian credentials may be waning, but I fully support this. The more information we have, the better decision we make, and the better the market will conform to our desires and provide us the products that we want.

  3. RD,

    Note that the information already is generally available. Consumers who want the nutritional info for fast food can usually find it: online, in papers available at the restaurant, on tray liners, etc. It’s not a secret. Fast food restaurants have been voluntarily providing it for some time. Laws such as the one in NYC don’t merely require that the info be provided. They mandate that it be posted in as large a type as the prices on the valuable real estate of menu boards.

    So no, this isn’t about providing the information. It’s about imposing on restaurants and consumers alike a more prominent display of it than they would otherwise produce, without any clearly demonstrated benefits or demand for the imposition.

  4. Well, Hardee’s revels in the fact that their food is bad for you. It’s an implied part of their advertising campaign. I think that if they posted their calorie information, they would use calorie counts as a selling point (the Double Bacon Cheese Mayo Thickburger, now with 2000 calories!)

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