You might recall that last summer anti-obesity fanatics Kelly Brownell and David Ludwig wrote a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They were addressing the lack of evidence that government-mandated menu labeling would actually work. “For some of the most important public health problems today,” the duo wrote, “society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty.” But according to a Los Angeles Times report this week, the media should have done just that: waited.
The LA Times investigation looks at studies conducted following the first menu labeling law in New York City. The result? There’s no conclusive evidence that calorie labeling has changed diners’ habits. Or as we told the Houston Chronicle yesterday, “The findings so far have been mixed. On paper it seems like a good idea but in practice seems relatively ineffective.”
Let’s take a look at the evidence:
Brownell and others, writing in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that calorie labels on menus affected food choices. Adding supplementary nutritional information (such as the recommended daily caloric intake) to the labels increased the impact. Diners who were shown just calorie counts, though, made up for the decreased consumption at dinner by eating more later.
New York University and Yale professors, writing in Health Affairs, compared diners’ decisions in low-income neighborhoods in New York City (with menu labeling) and New Jersey (without labeling). They concluded: “[W]e did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling.”
Writing in Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Washington determined that parents at a fast food restaurant that had menu labeling ordered slightly fewer calories for their children, but not for themselves.
Stanford researchers compared data from Starbucks stores and found that labeling decreased the number of calories purchased by about 6 percent, primarily because of fewer or lower-calorie food items purchased.
Lastly, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (which supported the original labeling law) presented its own data at an Obesity Society meeting in October, finding that 15 percent of customers were influenced by menu labeling, ordering 106 fewer calories. However, 44 percent of customers didn’t even notice the information.
We warned that labeling advocates didn’t have any conclusive evidence that their master plan would work as promised. In 2008, then-top NYC health nanny Thomas Frieden even acknowledged that “we don’t have 100 percent proof that it’s going to work.” It’s too bad some states and localities have learned this the hard way.
Of course Brownell is continuing to push labeling, and he probably won’t be happy until calorie counts come on flashing billboards with high-decibel sirens. He’s also peddling social engineering in the form of soda taxes, despite plenty of evidence that it won’t work either. We’re wondering: How much longer are lawmakers going to listen to him?