Tragedy struck one fateful morning when you realized that your daily bagel with cream cheese was a whopping 510 calories—approximately one quarter of your recommended daily calorie intake. Does this realization alter your decision to eat said bagel? Or better yet, does it even register as unhealthy in your mind?
These are the questions nutritionists and policymakers have been pondering since 2010 when a provision of the Affordable Care Act mandated that retail food establishments with 20 locations or more label the number of calories in their products on menus.
Debates came to a head in late November when the Food and Drug Administration announced new rules requiring movie theaters and pizza parlors across the country to join chain restaurants in posting calorie information on their menus. FDA officials have instated said rules in an effort to curb America’s astonishing obesity problem, with FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg contending, “Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home, and people today expect clear information about the products they consume.”
Obesity rates have more than doubled since 1970, and it is the second leading cause of preventable death in the US. This comes as no surprise, considering the 1,500 to 3,000 calorie breakfast dishes, lunches, entrees and desserts topping the menus of America’s fast food and chain restaurants.
But the question on everyone’s minds should be: does calorie labeling have any effect on calorie consumption and, subsequently, obesity?
The experts can’t seem to agree on an answer. According to a meta-analysis from 2011 focused on fast food restaurants, the answer is a resounding “no,” concluding, “calorie labeling does not have the intended effect of decreasing calorie purchasing or consumption.”
Conversely, a more recent study focused on chain restaurants found that consumers with calorie-labeled menus purchased 155 fewer calories than those with non-labeled menus. The study also reported that those who said the calorie information affected their order tended to be of higher income and education. However, obesity studies show that obesity is most prevalent across a different demographic: those with lower education levels and lower incomes.
The combined results of these two studies raise an interesting point: calorie labeling, meant to lower obesity rates and enable patrons to make more informed health decisions, doesn’t have an effect on those who it’s supposed to benefit—the obese.
With calorie labeling comes a hefty bill. The FDA estimates the rules will apply to 278,600 restaurants and 10,800 vending machine operators, costing each establishment around $1,100. As for the newly announced grocery store rules, ABC News reported, “representatives from the supermarket industry have said it could cost them up to a billion dollars to put labels in place—costs that would be passed on to consumers.”
Large companies such as Kroger Co. have also expressed concern to the FDA over rising consumer bills and potential layoffs. Brendon Cull, who handles government affairs for Kroger, contends that grocery stores aren’t fast food restaurants, and “Kroger stores would need to spend $20 million to come into compliance with the new regulations.” The extra funds lie not just in calorie labeling, but also in testing foods, preparing new menus and training employees.
Put simply, the stark disconnect between the people calorie labeling affects and the people it’s intended to affect, bundled with an astronomically high price tag, renders calorie labeling ineffective, illogical and potentially harmful to our economy. While calorie labeling can be a powerful tool to combat obesity, tackling this health crisis needs to start at the root of the problem: a lack of health education. Success lies in first ensuring that people are able to comprehend the gluttony of a 1,500-calorie lunch, rather than spending billions on a “one size fits all” solution for a large, extra large and extra extra large problem.
What do you think about the new FDA regulations? Do you think there’s a more cost-effective way to combat obesity? Share your comments below!