Misleading calorie counts

Another study has found that the calories listed for items in some restaurants are often inaccurately low:

Measured energy values of 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18% more calories than the stated values. Likewise, measured energy values of 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets averaged 8% more calories than stated on the label.

That’s not surprising. What’s interesting is that this isn’t necessarily due to intentional deception. It may be in part an unintended consequence of FDA regulation:

The authors also note that the US Food and Drug Administration allows up to 20% excess energy content but weight must be no less than 99% of the stated value. This might lead manufacturers to add more food to the package to insure compliance with the weight standards and thereby exceed the stated energy content.

In case you missed it during the holidays, the latest study regarding mandated calorie posting at restaurants does not make it out to be an effective policy.

Calorie counts for all, like it or not


Yale study finds calorie labeling doesn’t work

There’s a new study out about calorie labeling and it comes to some interesting conclusions. It’s from the Rudd Center at Yale, authored by Christina Roberto, Peter D. Larsen, Henry Agnew, Jenny Baik, and Kelly D. Brownell. Here’s the basic description of the methodology and conclusion from the Rudd Center’s release:

The researchers studied 303 adults in New Haven, Connecticut, dividing them into three groups – the first saw a menu with no calorie labels, the second saw a menu with calorie labels, and the third saw a menu with calorie labels plus information on the recommended daily caloric intake for an average adult.

Participants in the two groups who saw calorie labels ate 14 percent fewer calories than the group whose participants did not see calorie labels. Furthermore, when after-dinner eating was factored in, people in the group who saw menu labels and recommended calorie guidelines consumed an average of 250 fewer calories than people in the other groups.

Unsurprisingly this result is being pitched as evidence in favor of mandatory calorie labeling and the headline used by credulous news sources like USA Today is quite a bit different from my own. Digging a bit deeper into the actual study [pdf] complicates the picture.

To its credit, the study addresses one of the questions ignored by much of the previous research: The possibility that people who are prompted to order lighter meals because they see calorie information will compensate by eating more food at other times. This study attempts to account for that by doing follow-up interviews with participants about what they consumed for the rest of the day. And this is where things get interesting:

Most striking was the impact of adding daily caloric requirement information to the menu. It was surprising how much participants in the calorie labels condition ate in the evening hours following the meal; when calories consumed in this condition during and after the study meal were combined, there was no advantage for calorie labeling only over no labeling. The advantage occurred when the menu included both calorie labels and a prominently displayed notice stating the average person should consume approximately 2000 calories per day. Total caloric intake for the combination of the study meal and food consumed later was 1630 calories, 1625 calories, and 1380 calories for the no calorie labels, calorie labels only, and calorie labels plus information conditions, respectively.

Emphasis mine. In other words, this study supports the arguments made by critics of mandatory labeling by finding that labeling alone doesn’t lead to reduced total consumption. Of course, that result is never mentioned in the press release.

There are other limitations to the study, perhaps most substantially the fact that it took place in an environment far removed from the atmosphere of a restaurant:

When participants arrived at 5:30 pm on the first day, they had been instructed to abstain from eating after 2:30 pm to standardize hunger levels. The experiment took place in a university classroom in a building not affiliated with eating research. Participants sat behind dividers so they could not see others’ meal choices; 2 to 14 individuals participated per study session.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone finding this environment conducive to having a pleasant meal. I have to wonder if outside a lab, when trying to enjoy themselves, participants would be more likely to indulge despite the calorie recommendation.

Regardless of that, this study suggests that calorie labeling alone won’t be sufficient to change diets. Thus we come to the next step:

The findings support the proposal that chain restaurants should be required to post calorie labels on restaurant menus; however, they suggest that to maximize the effectiveness of this policy, menu items should also include a label informing individuals of the daily caloric requirements for an average adult.

As Jacob Sullum wrote of mandated calorie postings last year, “There’s a difference between informing people and nagging them.” If health researchers get their way that difference is about to get even smaller.

Previously: For more on the question of whether nutritional information should be prominently posted or merely made available, see this post from July.



I’ve posted here before about British fostering agencies have forbidden smokers from taking care of children. Their prejudice has now extended to the obese as well:

A couple from Leeds have been told they cannot adopt because one of them is too fat.

Damien and Charlotte Hall cannot have children of their own, so they approached Leeds City Council about adopting a child.

They were told Mr Hall’s weight, at 24.5 stone (156kg), made him morbidly obese with a body mass index, or BMI, of more than 42.

In a letter, the council told them his BMI must be below 40 before they could be considered as potential parents, because there was a risk he could become ill or even die.

Charlotte, 31, who works as a nanny, has been married to Damien, 37, for 11 years and they have been a couple for 14. Mr Hall works in a call centre and, at 6ft 1in, says he knows he is overweight.

Mr. Hall’s medical revealed him to be in otherwise good health. His wife is a professional nanny. There appears to be no other reason for denying their application, and for that some child is denied a home. This is the face of the nanny state. Not concern for health, but simple prejudice against people whose lifestyle they disapprove of.


Lazy reporting and the Pueblo ban study

The Centers for Disease Control have issued a new report about the impact of the smoking ban in Pueblo, Colorado. The study has the media breathlessly repeating claims that the ban dramatically saves lives. “A smoking ban caused heart attacks to drop by more than 40 percent in one U.S. city and the decrease lasted three years, federal health experts reported Wednesday,” writes Reuters reporter Maggie Fox, who doesn’t bother quoting any dissenting sources. Mary Engle at the LA Times health blog says uncritically that whatever the mechanism behind the fall in heart attacks, “Pueblo’s smoking ban can take the credit.” Bill Scanlon at the Rocky Mountain News throws science to the wind and extrapolates that Colorado will see a statewide “sharp decline” in heart attacks in 2009 — more than two years after its ban went into effect.

I realize times are tough in newsrooms, but there’s no excuse for such biased, lazy reporting. Journalists should treat the claims of ideologically driven anti-smoking groups with just as much skepticism as they would junk science coming from big tobacco companies.

Since the CDC’s report is going to be cited constantly by smoking ban advocates it’s worth taking a look at its methodology and limitations. Fortunately it’s straightforward enough that any moderately intelligent person can understand it. The following is my layman’s reading of the results, with the caveat that I’m approaching this without formal training. Nonetheless, it’s clear that one shouldn’t take this study’s conclusions at face value. Its use by anti-smoking groups, researchers, and the press to promote smoking bans is a case study in the abuse of science for political ends.
Continue reading “Lazy reporting and the Pueblo ban study”


Drinking up baby

This blog has touched before on the disapproval pregnant women face when they choose to have an occasional drink. This 2006 New York Times article written by a woman who chose to drink wine during her pregnancy provides a good background on the issue, one that’s become heated in England and as the government there considers revising its health guidelines. That’s where some new research suggests that moderate alcohol in the second and third trimesters isn’t dangerous for the child:

Boys born to mothers who drank lightly were 40% less likely to have conduct problems and 30% less likely to be hyperactive, even when the differences between social and economic circumstances were taken into account. They also scored more highly in vocabulary tests and were better able to identify shapes, colours, letters and numbers.

The research has the authority of a large study – it involved 12,495 children – but is likely to further fuel the controversy over alcohol in pregnancy.

The study also found that girls born to light drinkers were 30% less likely to have emotional and peer problems, compared with abstainers, but in their case this could not be extricated from their family backgrounds.

Although allowances had been made for social circumstances, Dr Yvonne Kelly, the lead researcher, said they could not be completely certain that the children’s better performance was not linked to their family background.

It’s possible that women who drink are more relaxed in general and that might be what accounts for the better behavior of their children, but it’s still striking that the study found no harm associated with moderate intake. Reasonable women may still prefer not to consume while pregnant, but this at least is one reason for laying off the ones who do.