The Pros and Cons of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Laws

As I'm sure most of you know, New York City recently passed an extremely progressive law requiring all chain restaurants (with more than ten stores) to list calorie information on all menu items. Seattle enacted a similar requirement last year, and just a few months ago the first phase of a broad menu-labeling law went into effect across the entire state of California.

On its face, these regulations appear to strike a fairly reasonable compromise between helping consumers make better-informed eating choices and placing a too-onerous burden on restaurants.

Until I thought about it a bit deeper.

Admittedly, the "pros" of restaurant calorie labeling are obvious and easy to explain. You can state them in two quick bullet points:

1) More information for the consumer, who can then make a better eating decision.

2) Calorie labeling should (in theory) encourage the restaurant and restaurant supply industries to "try harder" and make palatable foods without automatically relying on fat, salt and sugar.

That was easy, wasn't it? Clear, simple and highly compelling--and incidentally, perfect for a soundbite-based discussion on TV. So it sounds like we have an open and shut case, right? Right?

Well, even a seemingly bulletproof law should be able to stand up under a little scrutiny, so let's be intellectually fair and lay out the "con" side of the debate. Admittedly, the cons are not quite as easy to explain, and in some cases they are highly counterintuitive. Stay with me here:

1) Costs: Consumers end up paying for these regulations, because businesses will pass on the costs in the form of higher prices or cuts in other services. Sure, some of us want calorie data, but is it fair to make all consumers bear the costs?

2) Competition: The smallest chain restaurants (those which barely meet the minimum 10 stores) would suffer the greatest burden of following the regulations, while the largest chain restaurants can spread any costs over a much larger store base. This hurts the competitiveness of minor chains to the advantage of the mega-chains. Is calorie information worth it if it reduces restaurant choices? Is that pro-consumer?

3) Labeling requirements will have the counterintuitive result of increasing a chain's incentive to use artificial sweeteners and other chemicals (example: your local Au Bon Pain kills off their delicious 275 calorie chocolate croissants made with fresh butter and confectioner's sugar, replacing them with 199 calorie croissants containing I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and aspartame). The regulations would create a perverse incentive for restaurants to serve less healthy food.

4) Finally, the most abstruse "con" of all: Should the government even be involved between the consumer and what he eats in a restaurant? Is this a "slippery slope" law that may lead to more arbitrary laws in the future with deeper and more serious unintended consequences?

Before you assume I've been bought off by the restaurant industry (seriously, if you believe that, you haven't been reading Casual Kitchen for very long), re-read these con arguments again and think about them with a genuinely open mind. Things are not always as they seem.

Clearly, no calorie labeling advocate would deliberately intend to raise costs to the consumer, nor want to limit competition in the restaurant industry. And no labeling advocate would ever intend for foods to have more chemicals added to them. Right? And yet, these are all highly plausible, if perverse, consequences of the new rules. (See other examples of how regulations can cause extremely perverse results.)

Admittedly, the cons to the calorie labeling issue are complex, difficult to explain, and in some cases too counterintuitive for people to grasp. After all, it's notoriously difficult for people to perceive a law's unintended consequences if those consequences are unlikely for them.

But just because these points are difficult or counterintuitive doesn't mean that they are any less significant to the debate, especially for a new type of law the likes of which we've never really seen before in the United States.

I'll leave you with one final (and again, counterintuitive) question: Since the introduction in the early 1990s of stricter packaged food labeling regulations, what has happened to American obesity rates?

Exactly. Those regulations, despite their popularity, had no effect whatsoever on obesity--obesity rates accelerated upward during the 1990s! Are we barking up the wrong tree?

Readers, what are your thoughts?

Related Posts:
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto
On the True Value of a Forgotten Restaurant Meal
Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule
If It's So Cheap to Cook at Home, Then Why is My Grocery Bill So Huge?

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Maria said...

At risk of sounding totally misanthropic, I'm of the opinion that posting calorie counts in restaurants is another bull-shit, hand-holding tactic to address the obesity problem. Perhaps I'm too harsh, but I think that people need to practice a little self control in order to lost weight. We don't need Jenny Craig, we don't need Slim Fast, we don't need the plethora of diet products designed to suck money from our wallets... I mean, suck fat from our waistlines...

People know what they're eating is bad; we don't need restaurants to tell us that via calorie labeling. If the government IS going to get involved in this, maybe they should make frying things illegal. Or they should create a legal limit for the amount of food served.

Or maybe people should just start making better decisions.

Sorry about the rant.

Anonymous said...


Most people know their food's bad, but seeing how bad it is in numbers really compels some people. It certainly did the trick for me.

Also, it helps those monitoring their caloric intake to know exactly how much is in what dishes. Sure, if you're monitoring, you wouldn't go there usually—but you can't always control what groups want to do, and you may end up going to a restaurant that 10 of 11 people wanna go to.

Shane said...

After a recent trip to New York, I got to experience it first hand. I don't have the labeling back home (Iowa), but found it kind of useful and intriguing to see how many calories were in some of the foods. That said, you make some interesting points. There's always a price to pay though. No such thing as a free lunch. Not sure how I feel about it. If I was a chain restaurant, I'd hate it. Since I'm not exposed to it back home (yet)... I guess I can't say I like it or dislike it yet. I am one who enjoys having all the data at my disposal, but also don't want any bad consequences. Maybe if they didn't list it directly under the menu items, but rather force all restaurants to have it available. (Isn't that how it was already though).... Ehhh... Thought provoking article Dan. Well done.

Melissa said...

I do think we are 'barking up the wrong tree'. I think all of your cons are valid points and that the pro will not really address the issue of obesity. For many chain restaurants this information is already readily available and people simply choose not to seek it out. In this case I think people will choose to ignore it and continue their poor eating habits. And if this does happen then the only impact we will see is in the impact of the cons.

Daniel said...

Some good insights here.

Maria: No apology needed! People feel very strongly about this subject because it touches on extremely sensitive subjects (e.g. politics, regulation, obesity, etc).

Anon: Thanks for your comment. I hear you, and on the one hand I agree with the benefits--they will likely accrue to me as an individual too. But I think it's worth repeating my statement that "it's notoriously difficult for people to perceive a law's unintended consequences if those consequences are unlikely for them." That's one of the key issues here in my view.

Shane, thanks for your thoughts. I think a lot of people would agree with you that seeing the numbers is both an intriguing and (in some respects) a horrifying experience.

Melissa, you make a great point. At the end of the day, you can't change fundamental human nature, no matter how many rules and regulations you pass. Thanks as always for reading and sharing your thoughts.


Laura said...

My biggest complaint with the calorie labeling is that it is just a ballpark figure. The actual calories you consume depend on how your particular dish is prepared, and even small changes can increase (or decrease) the calorie count significantly. I guess any figure might be helpful, but I don't see it as being a strong enough motivation to get people to change their habits.

Besides, when I go out to eat, I don't generally go with the intent to count calories. It's usually for a special occasion, and I like to splurge a bit.

Daniel said...

Interesting point Laura, thanks for sharing. People get what they think is an exact number, but it really represents illusory information in some respects.


Martha said...

I understand the need for some people to obsessively know to the last calorie what they are eating...but,I agree with Maria! When I go to a restaurant it is for a special occasion, and I want to enjoy without the government involved in my choices.

I would hate to allow gov. another toehold in my life and in a business' ability to survive and serve what we want.It never works the way intended, and perpetuates the "nanny society".People need to think for themselves.

I shudder to think that scene in the movie "Demolition Man", where "Taco Bell" is the only restaurant, and meat,fats and sugar are outlawed as not healthy, could come true!

Charmian @ Christie's Corner said...

I gotta say, calorie counts on restaurant foods is a new concept to me (I live in Canada), but when I was in NYC it was quite an eye opener. More than once those labels stopped me from indulging in a "treat". I had grossly underestimated the calorie count on most of the desserts on display.

Granted, I was there for only a few days. Maybe the shock value wears off. I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to these things, but it really hits home how many hidden calories are in a latte and bran muffin when you see it in print.

No system is perfect, but if we aren't going to make the food we put into our bodies, we should at least have an idea what we're eating. Some pretty healthy looking food can be loaded with fat.

It's not a cure all, but for some, it could be a start.

Anonymous said...

I just want to know what I'm eating--I'd probably rather have indgredients listed than calories, but either would give more information than is usually given. Yes, a person can and should be able to estimate these things, but if the restaurant industry is as nefarious as is alleged, who knows what they're putting in there.

Julia said...

I think this labeling law is just scratching the surface of the problem -- the fact that unhealthy food is so much cheaper than nutritious, all natural, chemical- and additive-free food. If the costs were reversed, there would be no problem.

When many consumers go out to eat, they want good value -- so they go for the biggest, cheapest, most filling choice.

One of the challenges of the labeling law is how the restaurant can twist it in their favor to further deceive the customer. I noticed on Uno's website they list nutritional values of their pizzas. The individual serving pizza has 700 calories per serving. But if you look closely, you'll see that the pizza has *3* servings.

Dave said...

Great post. I'm much less concerned about calorie counts than I am about ingredients. Not just because I'm allergic to wheat gluten, but because I'm trying to keep HFCS, trans fats, and the rest of that crap out of my diet as well.

Joanne said...

Admittedly, I was really excited when I first found out that NYC passed the law saying that chain restaurants were required to post nutritional information on their menus. YES, I thought. Maybe now restaurants will be held accountable and will feel guilty about having 1,000+ calorie meals! Maybe they will step up to the plate and actually make their food..GASP...HEALTHIER!

Alas. This did not happen. Instead, what happens is that the already-nutritionally-informed look at a menu and order the healthy(est) option, which is what they probably would have ordered anyway. And the rest of the population (i.e. the majority) looks at the menu, has no idea what 1,000 calories actually means in the scheme of their caloric allowance (they don't even know what caloric allowance IS) and so they order whatever they want as well. I know it happens because I've seen my mother do it at Starbucks. She gets the venti caramel macchiato with full fat milk even though she can see it is 800+ calories. And I get the "skinny" cappuccino because the richness of the caramel macchiato has always made my stomach hurt.

The solution - education. The more people know about what they should and shouldn't eat in general, the more informed their decisions will be. And so hopefully, they will start to choose the better options not because a number tells them to but because they want to.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this kind of regulation is off the mark, but my feeling is that more information is better. Whether the public uses it or not is up to the individual.

Pursuit of Healthfulness said...

I recently wrote a column on this subject. At first I was like many people in thinking that only good can come from increased nutritional awareness. The more I got to thinking and talking about it with different people, however, the more my opinion evolved.

Now I argue that if I--someone who practices healthy eating and an active lifetyle the great majority of the time-- want to have a little indulgence, then why should I be unable to escape the nutritional information of my McFlurry? This again becomes a classic example of fixating on numbers rather than the true value of the food and the experience of eating.

If people are making better choices and are subsequently living healthier lives, then, yes, there is merit to these laws. Otherwise, please let me eat my treat (emphasis on treat) with the bliss of some ignorance.