The New Menu Labeling: From Information to Misdirection

The recently concluded campaign by the food police to mandate calorie counts on restaurant menu boards appears unlikely to seriously change obesity rates. A significant body of research indicates that consumers simply ignore the counts and make decisions based on taste and price.

The extra information probably isn’t hurting anybody so long as it’s generally accurate. Unfortunately, would-be food regulators are going to every effort to make consumers care, even to the point of misleading them. Scientific American promotes one such misleading scheme, giving a blog post to describe “exercise equivalent” calorie labeling. But this supposedly clever scheme is really a proposal for the government to mislead the public in the service of the food police.


The labels say that if you eat a 250-calorie burger, you would need to walk about 2.5 miles to “work off” that lunch. And while it may be strictly correct in a mathematical sense for some people, as the “equivalent” varies from person to person (depending on factors such as body weight), these labels paint a woefully inaccurate picture of why we eat: Just being alive consumes calories. (There’s a scientific term for this — the Basal Metabolic Rate.) Even a comatose patient must take in calories to survive, after all, and basic, relatively sedentary tasks burn some calories. Just because you eat food doesn’t mean that you automatically have to do exercise and burn it off. It’s excess calories that are the concern.

So if the point isn’t to tell people the truth, what is it? We can only surmise that it’s scaremongering. If misleading government-mandated labels designed to dupe the public are what the new rebranded “savvy state” public health messaging is going to look like, we were right to be skeptical. Consumer choice advocates will need to remain on their guard.

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