Calorie counts for all, like it or not

While I was away various bloggers once again took up the topic of mandated calorie postings at chain restaurants. Matthew Yglesias went so far as to suggest that the biggest problem with these mandates is that they only apply to chain restaurants. If they’re a promising approach to fighting obesity (I’m skeptical), why not extend them further?

Anyone who’s worked in a creative restaurant or appreciates seasonal food could tell you why. Conor Friedersdorf sums it up nicely at The Daily Dish:

That sounds like an excellent way to create marginally more chain restaurants! There are more than 350 McDonald’s in New York City. There are occasional minor menu changes, but the offerings are relatively static. The calorie labeling cost per restaurant is relatively low… compared to the cost for a single burger joint that has a rotating daily special, occasionally changes bun suppliers, and changes menu items frequently as it tries to experiment and gain a foothold in the neighborhood.

There are a lot of people — and I am one — who love one-off restaurants, specials written on chalk boards because they change everyday, fish dishes that depend on the catch, always changing menus, the use of local in season produce, etc. I do not want marginally less of these things! More broadly, the proliferation of regulations more easily born by large corporations than by small business owners is one reason why so many places in America are overrun with chains — as opposed to singular businesses that provide unique products to consumers and rewarding livelihoods for their proprietors. Of course, every little regulatory burden seems like a good idea on its own. But they all add up. Does Matt really want to make the rest of New York City look a little bit more like Times Square?

At the restaurant where I work the menu changes frequently based upon what’s in season and what unique ingredients our suppliers can provide us with at any given time. This is part of what makes the place so good. It would be financially and practically impossible to send special dishes away for calorie testing. Even making rough estimates base on the ingredients used would be an onerous burden in an already busy kitchen, enough of one to likely tip the scales against the chef bothering to make something new and exciting when a rare fish or succulent fruit is offered by one of our vendors. This is an obvious reason for limiting the mandates to chain restaurants and I can’t imagine why Yglesias, a food blogger, didn’t bother to mention it. (It’s important too not to set the standard for what counts as a chain too low. Recall the small New York pizza chain that spent $10,000 testing its various pies. Have its customers received $10,000 worth of benefits from this testing? How would we prove this?)

Yglesias is also dismissive of libertarian arguments against the mandates. He writes:

Now of course you’ll hear a libertarian argument to the effect of, “if people really wanted to know this stuff the market would respond automatically” which I think you’d have to say was naive at best.

It’s true that it would be naive to think that there’s a perfect market for this information. But it’s also naive to think that there’s no market for nutritional information or that a one-size-fits-all approach is what consumers prefer. Consumers eating at Subway, for example, tend to be interested in the amount of calories they’re taking in. Unsurprisingly Subway caters to their interest by prominently advertising the calories in its sandwiches. In contrast, a person going to Five Guys is likely uninterested in calorie information, at least for that particular meal. So though the chain puts the information online it doesn’t voluntarily post it on its menu boards. This is a market response to consumer demand: The information is available to those who want it but not shoved in the faces of those who’d like to forget about nutrition for a while and enjoy a greasy burger. For many of us the experience of eating at Five Guys would not be improved by being reminded of exactly how many calories we’re consuming.

Yglesias takes the view that increasing the amount of information given to consumers improves the market for food. That’s often true but the reality isn’t that simple. As consumers we can enhance the experience of eating by controlling the amount of information we consider. Buying food directly from the growers at a farmers market enhances the pleasure of eating local produce. Counting calories and knowing we’re being healthy makes having a salad for lunch more enjoyable; counting calories when we’re indulging, whether with fast food or at Per Se, detracts from the meal.

Think of it this way. Imagine a restaurant where when you sit down the server offers you two menus identical in every respect except that one includes a calorie count next to every item and the other doesn’t. Are you being irrational if you choose the menu without the added information or are you rationally choosing the presentation that would make the meal most pleasurable? Obviously the context matters. Progressives like Yglesias want to take that choice away from you.

Advocates of mandated calorie counts like to frame the issue as simply making the information consumers need more readily available. Yglesias is more honest when he quotes Ezra Klein arguing that the point is putting calorie counts where customers can’t avoid them:

Chain restaurants will have to list caloric information on their menus and menu boards. Not behind the desk, or off to the side, or up on the ceiling. Where you can see it. New York, among other cities, has already instituted that policy. Every Starbucks in Manhattan now must post the calories in a MochaFrappaWhatsIt right next to the drink name.

Jacob Sullum rightly concludes that this crosses the line from informing people to nagging them. Advocates of disclosure are welcome to make the argument that the obesity crisis demands such nagging, but they should be forthright about what they’re doing rather than couching the argument in terms of consumer advocacy.

Improvements in information technology are another reason to doubt the merits of forcing restaurants to post calories directly on menus. Websites like Calorie Lab already provide databases of the nutritional information from more than 500 restaurants. As far as I know they don’t have a phone app yet, but they could easily make one (one competitor already has). As smart phones proliferate it will be easier than ever for consumers to access calorie counts in addition to much more thorough nutritional information about the foods they eat. Yet these archaic laws will still be on the books forcing unneeded clutter on printed menus.

If availability of information is the issue there are easy ways to address it. We can require chains to make it readily accessible within restaurants and in standard data formats online. Anyone who wants the information to make healthier choices will be able to get it. I suspect that most opponents of mandated calorie postings wouldn’t object too strenuously to this as long as it doesn’t burden small chains and individual restaurants. What we object to is the notion that the specific number of calories we eat must always be in our thoughts, whether we like it or not.


  1. AP says:

    I would like less information on my menus. The Name of the item suffices. If I have any questions, I’m sure the waiter or bartender can help.

    No prices, No calories, No nut alergy warnings, No spice alerts.

  2. Barzelay says:

    I have to disagree with your assertion that it would be difficult to estimate calorie counts for daily specials and the like. Most restaurants already calculate the cost of each dish in order to determine how much they should charge for it, and how much profit they’ll make off the orders. As part of that calculation, each ingredient and an approximate quantity is usually already listed out. It would not be especially difficult to add in the step of calculating the calories for that dish.

    Of course, it being possible–or even easy–to estimate nutritional information doesn’t mean such a procedure should be mandated. But I also don’t agree that it improves one’s experience of some meals if one doesn’t know the calorie count.

    When you go to Five Guys, it’s not because you’re able to block out the fact that it is fattening for the duration of the meal. If that were the case, it might be disturbing if you got reminded of the calorie count in the middle of your gluttony. No. When you go to Five Guys, you’re very much conscious of how unhealthy it is, and decide to indulge in it anyway. If anything, your consciousness of your own indulgence actually heightens the experience, in the same way that the fact that you’re on vacation makes everything you do on the vacation that much more carefree: take advantage while you can.

    I just don’t buy that argument! I can understand the argument that calorie counts are unnecessary, or impose undue burdens on business, or are paternalistic meddling. But arguing that you will enjoy your meal less if you know its calorie count is ridiculous. Sure, if we are eating a slice of cheesecake and someone says “You know how many grams of fat are in that?” our response might be, “Ugh. Don’t tell me.” But we’re only joking. We know that the cheesecake is bad for us. That’s part of why it’s fun to eat. Being told exactly how bad it is won’t dampen the experience of anyone who doesn’t have an eating disorder. I think that’s an argument that is either the result of a serious lack of self-awareness (the popular joke has been internalized by people to the point where they really believe they won’t enjoy it as much if they are told how unhealthy it is) or a result of disingenuous rhetoric (like the “protect the employees” line of smoking ban advocates).

    Just to tease this out further, let’s suppose we set up an experiment. Participants in our study are given a piece of cheesecake and ask to rate their enjoyment of the cheesecake on a scale of 1 to 10. Some of the participants are told before eating the cheesecake that it’s a low-calorie cheesecake, only 100 calories per serving. Others are told it is 200 calories, while some are told that it’s an extremely rich cheesecake, 1000 calories per serving. I am guessing that there while be a positive correlation being perceived calorie count and enjoyment. Do you disagree?

    Obviously, that does not take into account the fact that, in the real world, people are not told what to eat. In the real world, they make decisions about what to eat, and I do not suppose that all the subjects would choose to eat a 1000 calorie slice of cheesecake over a 50 calorie slice of cheesecake. But I don’t believe that anyone’s experience at a restaurant will be diminished by being reminded of the nutritional content of their meal.

  3. Jacob Grier says:

    @Barzelay: That’s a really interesting idea for an experiment. I think your expectations about the results would probably be correct, since we tend to think that desserts that are higher in calories will taste better (and are usually right about that, all else equal).

    But I also think there’s a difference between the lab environment and the restaurant. Yes, people know when they’re indulging, but they don’t want to think of that in a medical/nutritional context. People like to be told that a dessert is rich or see a name like “Death by Chocolate.” That enhances the experience. They don’t want to be told flat out that something has 1000 calories because that changes the emphasis of what they’re doing. It reframes dessert as something unhealthy rather than something pleasurable.

    I might be wrong about this, but it’s striking that virtually no restaurant uses high calorie counts as a selling point (Hardee’s might have done an ad like that once). If advertising a high calorie count on the dessert menu would increase customer’s perception of the taste, why doesn’t anyone do that?

  4. Barzelay says:

    I think you’re generally correct, much as I enjoy arguing the counterpoint. I think the reason is guilt. When people make decisions about what to eat (as opposed to when they are told to eat a particular item in my experiment), they will feel guilty if they choose the expensive cheesecake. I think I have a much-greater-than-average capacity to separate my feelings of guilt from my enjoyment of the cheesecake, and I am projecting my own eating practices onto other people who don’t care as much about food, don’t enjoy it on as deep a level, and are more likely than me to care a lot about the healthiness.


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