When you ate that donut for breakfast (or lunch), did you know it was “unhealthy”?
The answer is probably yes, even if you didn’t see the donut’s exact fat and calorie count.
So how will a government mandate for nutrition labels in restaurants improve America’s health? It probably won’t. And that’s not just the conclusion of our donut scenario – it’s also the conclusion of many recent studies that have tested the effects of calorie information on food consumption.
A recent Washington Post article titled, “The skinny on restaurant calorie labels,” cites over eight restaurant owners, scientists, and health nutritionists who from formal and informal studies have concluded that a prominent display of nutrition labels at chain restaurants will not improve eating habits. Even Lisa Harnack, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota and originally an advocate for governmentally required nutrition labeling, admitted she was “heartsick” at her study’s results: “I was optimistic we would find that people would make different choices based on having more information.”
An article from MSNBC (“Menu nutrition labels don’t change habits”) further notes the ineffectiveness of calorie labeling, as do the following studies: “Child and adolescent fast-food choice and influence of calorie labeling: a natural experiment” (B. Elbel, et al.), “Adolescent fast food and restaurant ordering behavior with and without calorie and fat content menu information” (J. Yamamoto, et al.), and “The influence of recipe modification and nutritional information on restaurant food acceptance and macronutrient intakes” (K. Stubenitsky, et al).
The conclusion of these combined reports is well summarized by a line from the Post article: “Experts say that for most diners, the issue is not about having information but about lacking self-control.”
Though the benefits of enforced nutrition labeling may not exist, the costs, unfortunately, are very real. The FDA estimates the initial mean cost of compliance is $315.1 million. Many of these costs will fall in the worst place – small business owners who have borrowed money to start a local outpost of a national franchise. Also, either they and/or their franchisor could be on the hook for civil or criminal liability for violations of the regulations, which account to “mislabeling,” an ominous term defined in the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act and its implementing rules.
This is hardly what the economy needs when the unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent and food prices are rising. Washington Legal Foundation recently filed comments with FDA to address the proposed labeling requirement and show that a cost/benefit calculation of the measure returns a very negative number.
It’s bad enough that the government is trying to force labeling requirements on private businesses. It’s even worse when the proposed requirement is costly and ineffective – regulation for the sake of regulating, and little more.