Thursday, March 08, 2012

Why I Ignore Data Suggesting Menu Board Calories Don't Work

It'll always, always be flawed.

What do I mean?

Firstly we know that posted menu board calories only matter to those who care about calories, and so when a recent study suggests that for all comers it only causes a small, if any, drop in calories ordered, that's not remarkable given pre-order surveys of patrons in New York City suggest that only about 15% of folks currently care.

More importantly though, what no study of menu board calorie impact will ever measure are the calories not ordered by the patrons who decided consequent to menu board calories postings, to eat out in restaurants less frequently and hence weren't included in the study at all.

I have to admit, I get frustrated when I read articles in newspapers like the one by Marni Soupcoff a few days ago that suggest menu board calories aren't worth it. Marni's especially given that the restaurants studied in the paper that led her to her broad sweeping and premature conclusion were in low-income neighbourhoods and as I've argued before, the poor may well value dollars more than they do calories (a fact Marni doesn't mention in her blanket thumbs down to the practice).

And as I mentioned yesterday, there is never going to be a singular intervention that'll do the trick, but that doesn't mean we should scrap the single interventions. Couple menu board calories with better energy balance and nutritional education in schools, public health campaigns surrounding daily caloric needs as well as a call to action to bring back home cooking, the end to crop subsidies that allow fast food to be sold for pennies, an advertising and toy ban for fast food companies targeting children, and hey, maybe we'll see some changes.

So Marni, forgive me if I label your suggestion that menu board labeling is a
"waste of time and money",
as painfully ill informed, and your labeling of the practice of providing consumers with more information at point of purchase as
"a petty exercise of power that puts us one step closer to a public-health police state",
as fear mongering nonsense.

Bookmark and Share


  1. A couple of thoughts. First, there is an implication that it is somehow dramatically more expensive to put a 3-4 digit number up along with all the additional information. The marginal cost has to be close to zero. Perhaps replenishing out of cycle is an increase in costs, but most of these are refreshed regularly anyway to reflect sales, etc. Second, if 15% (of whom I am one) use the additional information, why is it a waste? I imagine the use of a lot of things is not much higher that we still think are worth the costs, such as art museums, parks, etc.

    1. Anonymous6:09 am

      I believe the cost is in determining the calories. not the displaying of the calories. For big chains with fixed menus it may not be a big marginal cost. For more specialty shops who cycle their menu it is a larger marginal cost.

    2. There has never been a bill that hasn't taken that into account. Either it's a dollar value of revenue or number of locations. If you don't make over X dollars or have more than X locations you're exempt.

  2. Anonymous6:47 am

    I remember the first time I flew into Seattle, where they post calories. I had been delayed for hours and was starving and feeling bad for myself. One look at a "veggie bagel sandwich" at over 700 calories and I "made" my own lunch of two hardboiled eggs from one place and a plain green salad from another. I would have estimated the veggie sandwich at 400 calories and just gone with it (I am short and those few hundred calories really matter). Whenever I am in the states the posted calorie count stops me from ordering an impulse meal at a fast food place.

  3. A.J.Cronin6:49 am

    A breakdown of macronutrients would be much better, much more helpful in determining where it fits into my daily diet.

  4. Donna7:06 am

    I went to a place in Bayshore, for get what place it is. They had calories listed, I decided on a burger and a water. Instead of a "meal deal" I still ate more calories than I should have, but I saved a few hundred too.
    I like when their posted, it helps me make better choices!

  5. Good point. I know many people (myself included) for whom the publicly available calorie information deters the visit altogether.

    Dr. Sherry Pagoto

  6. Paulette7:59 am

    Information will always be used only by those who are interested. A basic piece of information like calories, tells you whether this meal is in line with your habits or not. Macronutrients would be sueful as well, but as someone pointed out in the chain, it is the workup of information rather than posting that is the main cost. Lets also remember it is not a one time deal. Every time there is a change to the basic formula (even those not apparent to the customer) the information needs to be updated. I'd bet this happens far more often than anyone outside the restaurant industry realises. As the majority of ones diet should not come from restaurants & the like if caories are too high,I think one can safely assume that fat, carbohydrates and salt are also too high without seeing the numbers. I'm all for having the basic information posted. I will do what I choose with the information, but the posting means I am making an informed choice.

    1. Except there are easy online ways to calculate calorie content of recipes, and even divide up by portion number. And if there is a change in the recipe you can just go in on the saved recipe and make the change.

  7. While this Marni character is entitled to her opinion, I have to say that I am growing tired of people who are upset about efforts to inform the public about the food they are eating, crying out that we are turning into this so-called "public health police state". I guess it's an attempt to be "provocative" and "to spark a debate" - but really, it seems more like someone who couldn't find anything better to criticize. If no such intervention existed, people would be complaining that we aren't doing enough to inform the public. Either way, we can't win.

  8. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post pointed out that a side benefit of menu board calorie laws is that it can result in restaurants adjusting their dishes to be less offensive. He used the example of Macaroni Grill, whose spinach and scallop salad went "from 1,270 calories to 390 calories" as a result.

  9. Anonymous8:55 am

    Just yesterday labeling at my campus snack counter directed me from a 600 calorie muffin to a 180 calorie Luna bar. I'm 5'3" and middle aged, so those 400+ calories really matter to me. You tell 'em, Dr. Yoni!

  10. I agree with x-ine - how can people argue that posting nutritional information will turn us into a nanny state? The information itself doesn't exert any control over people; it's just information, and it's neutral. What it does is empower people to make better decisions for themselves.

    Knowing more about what we eat will always be good for us, even if sometimes we still choose the muffin over the fruit salad. It just means we know more about what we're putting into our bodies.

  11. Anonymous11:24 am

    When I was visiting New York a couple years ago, my sister and a friend and I actually walked out of a TGI Friday's because there was nothing there that didn't have a four-digit calorie count. And the numbers I saw on Starbucks food made me give it up completely, even back in Canada (I used to eat it pretty regularly)
    So I definitely wish calorie labelling was more widespread. My experiences in New York have made me a lot more wary of eating out now, because a lot of the numbers I saw there were honestly pretty disgusting, and not what I would have guessed at all.

  12. I find that calorie labels steer me towards more protein rich food options. I am shocked at how many calories are in items like breads and pastas, and how they compare to pure sugar (I.e. sodas) and protein/meats.

    Though, the NYC drinking fat subway ads just make me crave soda.

  13. Anonymous2:39 pm

    I thought this study might be of interest:

  14. Anonymous6:30 pm

    I felt sort of resentful about calorie counts when they first went up on the menus -- I already knew that fast food wasn't generally good for me, and it felt like I was being scolded. But over time I've come to value the information, and it does guide my choices. I don't expect posting calories to have an overall effect on the average calories per purchase -- but it's very useful data for those of us who care, and putting it right on the menu instead of somewhere you have to go out of your way to hunt for it makes it much more practical. Though I do take the restaurant measurements as rough estimates, not perfectly accurate data.

  15. As someone who worked very hard to lose 95 pounds in the last eighteen months, I get frustrated with restaurants who either choose not to post the calories in their menu or online (I live in the States so it's not mandated everywhere yet). Yes, I do go online to see what foods are on the menus and what is a smart yet satisfying choice in foods prior to ever stepping foot through their door. It's a lot easier to order from the safety of my laptop, void of tantalizing pictures and aromas. Further, I'm a picky eater so the nutritional data gives me the opportunity to figure out exactly what works for me. However, if there isn't a data-filled website to use at home, I rely on the menus. And yes, I do take calories into consideration when choosing what to eat. Do I have days where I throw all caution to the wind and just eat exactly what I've craved? Sure. But that's more of a one-off. I still make a lot of food choices in restaurants based on the combination of flavors and calories.

    Also overlooked is the effect the published data has had one the recipes and ingredients. Many restaurants have admitted to rethinking their dishes after it became necessary to disclose the nutritional data... after all, a 3,000+ calorie entreƩ becomes startling when the number is out there for everyone to see.

  16. Kelly-AnneH2:15 am

    I love having the calories posted and wish more restaurants did it. As it is I generally look up menus on-line on the (now rare) occasion we eat a meal out. We used to eat out several times a week, but now we're down to maybe once a month - if that. We've learned to make tastier meals at home for a fraction of that calorie hit - and we can eat in our jammies. :o)

  17. Rhodia10:40 am

    I think the calorie count is something that we should have the right to know, and then it's up to us whether and how to use that information.

    Also, even if I still choose to purchase a high-calorie item, the calorie information may influence me in other ways. Some people have mentioned choosing to eat out less, but also I could choose to eat a lighter supper if I know I had a high-cal lunch.

  18. I find the caloric information to be very helpful. It helps make better choices and gives a better perspective around how the food fits into my daily caloric consumption.

  19. Your point about the inability to measure the food not ordered is great. It reminds me of one the dumbest questions we pharma market researchers ask physicians: "What % of patients with Disease X are undiagnosed?"

    That said, it seems relatively simple to design a study that included an assessment of pre-ordering intent with measures of exposure to & interest in calorie info, and actual ordering behavior. One would have to control for other factors that influence the gap between intent & behavior, of course (food presentation, cost, etc). Someone throw a grant my way & I'm on it ;)