On Tuesday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new menu-labeling law, which requires chain restaurants to post calorie information. And now the world’s largest restaurant company is set to announce plans to do the same on menu boards in all 20,000 of its locations. The usual suspects immediately applauded the company’s move for “leaping ahead of all its competitors.” But this raises a question: Why do companies decide they must take a leap in the first place? The answer is that food activists disseminated bad science, creating an environment of false perceptions about nutrition and obesity.
There is no credible evidence that calorie displays on menus will affect consumer choice or obesity. And how would they, given the fact that chain restaurants only account for an average of eight percent of our caloric intake?
The assumption made by labeling advocates is that more nutritional information makes smarter eaters, decreasing obesity. Once again, the evidence tells a different story.
Just look at America’s record on packaged-food labeling. The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act required food manufacturers to label nearly all packaged foods with their nutritional information. But it has had no positive effect on obesity levels. When former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester Crawford suggested looking at packaged food labeling as a model for restaurant menu labels, he observed: “What we did in making nutrition labeling mandatory did not help obesity. In fact, some people would say it hurt.”
The real problem, as we’ve always argued, is physical inactivity. Even an infamous food cop has lamented that “we’ve engineered the last physical activity out of our life.” Inactivity, with or without menu labeling, is still inactivity.
In fact, the law of unintended consequences, which always seems to mar the plans of nutrition nannies, makes no exception with menu labeling. Research indicates that those consumers who deliberately attempt to eat fewer calories are likely to consume more calories by the end of the day. It’s no wonder some experts believe that menu-labeling policies “could backfire — whether by adding to the forbidden-fruit allure of high-calorie foods or by sending patrons away hungry enough that they will later gorge themselves even more.”
Ambitious government projects don’t work. Just ask Arkansans. It’s been four years since their draconian childhood obesity initiative launched, and what do they have to show for it? Exactly nothing. And a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that soft drink bans in schools has had (surprise, surprise) little impact.
So let’s wager. We predict that in five years, the recent menu-labeling schemes will not have contributed anything to public health. Thus we declare October 1 our annual "checkup" day to determine whether menu labeling has made people skinnier.