Calorie Labeling’s Laws of Unintended Consequences

Yesterday I went to lunch at Cosi to check out the results of New York City’s new calorie labeling law that requires restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide to post calories on their menus. The City started sending out violation notices yesterday, and while it’s still being contested, fines are due to be sent out starting July 18. See NY1, my favorite local news source, for the news, and this PDF from NYC for full details in the compliance guide.

At Cosi, a restaurant I don’t go to much, I suddenly had a new appreciation for the menu. Some of the smoothies there had calorie counts in the quadruple digits; even food guru Marion Nestle was surprised.

I ordered the wasabi roast beef sandwich partially because at 626 calories, it’s one of the more moderate menu items. It has 200 fewer calories than the veggie muffaletta sandwich (see the nutrition info online at getcosi.com). I love it. It was such a thrill to be able to see everything out in the open.

I know I’m not the average consumer. I’m fairly well read on nutrition, I have a fairly high metabolism that I take advantage of far more than I should, and – full disclosure – a family member works for the NYC Department of Health, so I know a ton about this issue in particular. But I’m still a consumer, one who eats out a lot (though usually not at chains), one who likes food, and one who still has that reptilian brain for hunger fulfillment, so I don’t think I’m totally out there.

When I saw that Cosi menu, I could balance a number of factors in making my decision: how tasty an item looked, how hungry I was, what else I had to or planned to eat today, how much I felt like making the right decision, how much I felt like spoiling myself, and how many calories certain items had relative to the others. The last point’s especially salient here: if the items average 800 calories, then ordering an 800 calorie sandwich makes me seem like I’m doing a so-so job at monitoring my intake, but if the items average 1,400 calories, then getting an 800 calorie item makes me feel like I’m a dieting superstar. In the latter scenario, I might then go for a 1,000 calorie item over an 800 calorie item, or I might stop by the ice cream truck (with no calorie labels) on the way back to work (which I almost did – I SO wanted the chocolate dipped vanilla cone).

That’s the first unintended consequence: restaurants with abominable menus may encourage consumers to eat worse and think they’re dieting.

The second unintended consequence is that consumers who care about nutrition may go to fast food restaurants MORE often. I could go to Eisenberg’s Deli and get a BLT with mayo, a fantastic sandwich at one of the best lunch spots in the city, and wash it down with an egg cream, consuming who knows how many calories in the process. OR, I could go to Cosi, get a lower quality sandwich, but at least know what I’m getting myself into. The decision to go to Cosi starts looking better and better.

Putting the two together, this may mean fast food chains don’t lose any business over this. They could even increase business. And while sales of their highest calorie items may drop off, sales of items with slightly fewer calories may actually increase. That means these restaurants would be wise to keep the highest calorie items prominently displayed on their menus. Even if sales drop off for those items, their mere presence could encourage a new form of pseudo-health-conscious gluttony, where consumers think they’re eating better in the relative sense. Still, the informed glutton is better off than the uninformed glutton, and a small fraction of people changing their eating habits can make this program pay off many times over.

As for my visit to Cosi, I avoided getting a drink, opting for water at my desk. With lunch, they offer a bag of carrots or a bag of chips. I was so good ordering a relatively lower calorie sandwich. Of course I got the chips.

And later that day I went to Eisenberg’s to meet someone for coffee, where I drank my egg cream in blissful ignorance.

One thought on “Calorie Labeling’s Laws of Unintended Consequences

  1. Like you, David, I’m also fairly well-read when it comes to nutrition, and personally, I welcome nutrition labeling. It couldn’t come soon enough to my state, Wisconsin — home of the Supersized Midwesterner (complete with a cheesehead hat!)
    But I’m also more conversant than most in economics, and in unintended consequences. It’s too easy to focus on one set of nutritional facts and conveniently lose sight of others. When high-fat processed foods were the nutritional bugaboo, food companies were quick to launch low fat foods that wound up actually having more calories, because they used added carbohydrates to compensate for the loss of other tastes. And low-calorie, vegetable-rich canned soups are among those with the most sodium.
    So you have a valid concern, at least initially. But I suspect that over time, the average consumer will ignore the nutritional facts that same way we all gloss over the “Terms and Conditions” on every software and web application out there. Those few of us on the far end of the bell curve may continue to vote with our feet by avoiding some dishes that restaurants serve, but as you point out, we’ll probably just take control, so to speak, and order the least deadly thing on the menu.
    And exception may be Eisenberg’s. Should nutrition lists arrive there, I may have to simply avert my eyes. You only live once, but if you do it right, one time is enough! 😉

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