Calorie labels and government nudges


Results matter. Intentions are nice, but they're not enough. That's why a new study that shows calorie labeling has no effect on food consumption is important.

There's also a disturbing conclusion the study reaches - when a nudge isn't enough, there's going to be a shove.

First, the results.

"A new study found that customers did not lower their calorie intakes at fast food restaurants in the wake of the mandatory calorie labeling scheme imposed during Michael Bloomberg's tenure as mayor of New York City," the Washington Free Beacon reports. "The study, published in the November issue of Health Affairs Journal, analyzed fast food receipts from shortly after the policy went into place in 2008 and then again in 2014. It found that the calories purchased actually increased in that time frame."

The study's author was Brian Elbel.

"Menu labeling, in particular at fast-food restaurants, will not on its own lead to any lasting reductions in calories consumed," he told Politico last week. "We found no consistent change in the nutritional content of foods and beverages purchased or in how often respondents purchased fast food."

The study found that in 2008, before the mandatory calorie labeling went into effect, people ordered an average of 783 calories per meal. In 2014, they ordered between 804 and 839 calories per meal. That's not because restaurants super-sized their usual orders - bulked up a burger, for example. People ordered more food.

So there's no question here, really. Bloomberg's program failed. However well it was intended, as a policy, it did not achieve was it was supposed to achieve.

In the private sector, any initiative that failed so miserably would be ended. But here's the most disturbing portion of the study - the conclusion.

"It must be recognized that only a subset of consumers report finding this information useful, and thus far its success in altering choice at a population level is unproven," it reads. "Therefore, other options must be considered as ways to combat obesity."

The nudge didn't work. Now comes the shove.

Nudging is a relatively new policy buzzword. It's a way for policy makers to gently push the rest of us into making the decisions they believe are the right decisions.

"The nickname is ‘nudging' - the idea that policymakers can change people's behavior just by presenting choices or information differently," Politico explained recently. "The classic example is requiring people to opt out of being an organ donor, instead of opting in, when they sign up for a driver's license."

But when the nudge isn't enough, policy makers take further steps. That's certainly what that study's author, Elbel, urges.

"Elbel said if public health departments really want to tackle the obesity problem, they need to regulate how fast-food is marketed and offer price subsidies for healthier foods," Politico noted.

Freedom is about choice, and also about taking responsibility for our choices. These policies, on the other hand, are really about taking away the "wrong" choices because policy makers in Washington don't believe we're qualified to make them for ourselves.

That's not freedom.

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