by Marion Nestle
Oct 7 2009

What’s up with calorie labeling?

So the New York Times ran a story about early research on the impact of New York City’s calorie labeling postings by fast food restaurants.  The research, done by some of my New York University colleagues, looked at what customers said they were doing and compared what they said to what they actually did.  Oops.  Customers said the labeling made them choose foods more carefully but they actually bought more calories.

So, should we give up on this idea?  No way.  These are preliminary results looking at what happened during the first few weeks of calorie labeling in fast food places in low-income areas of New York City.  In such areas, restaurant choices are few, cheap food is a necessity, and people go to fast food places precisely because they can get lots of calories at low cost.

I can think of several excellent reasons for calorie labeling, none of them addressed by this particular study and all of them supported by considerable observational evidence:

  • People do not understand calories very well; calorie labeling can begin the education process especially if accompanied by materials explaining that most people require about 2,000 calories a day.
  • Some people – not all, of course – will change their behavior and choose lower calorie items when they realize how many calories are in fast food.
  • Fast food places will reduce the number of calories in the items they serve.

This last may be the most important.  Just as labeling the amount of trans fat in processed foods caused food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats from their products, so fast food sellers are looking for ways to reduce the calories in their products.  This is already happening and is the easiest way I can think of to encourage people to eat less: don’t serve as much.

  • This might be hard to square with customers’ self-report, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if people bought more calories at certain places (e.g. Starbucks, McDonald’s) because they learned that everything they could buy had a lot of calories, so they figured they’d get what they wanted. From a recent SLATE story: “At the market, we buy a huge cinnamon-sugar doughnut… The last time I did it, a little boy passing us on the sidewalk with his mother said, ‘I want that,’ and the mother said, ‘You can have a croissant,’ and gave me a look as if I had just introduced her child to Ho-Hos or crack.” Presumably this mom didn’t realize just how similar the croissant is to the doughnut; if she had, she might have figured the extra few calories were worth the big bump in taste.

    … this is the sort of thing that goes through my mind when making pastry-buying decisions, anyway.

  • Howard

    Is it truly all about the calorie? Other nutrients, and satiating components of foods don’t impact overall consumption? If two meals from a fast food restaraunt differ in calories, is the one that has less calories always the right choice? Calorie labeling is yet another way to label foods good and bad. Is it time to admit that nutrition science is extremly complex and cannot be taught through a single on-pack icon or with a single focus on one attribute of a food (in this case calories). I argue that we dumb down nutrition too much, which leads to a nation of drones – always looking for the green light or check mark or that one labeled criteria on a menu or a product’s packaging that gives “permission to consume.” And what happens when that information is not available? When only a few truly understand the matrix behind the symbol or the reason WHY we look at calories only, we are left with a society that is not encouraged to learn, grow, develop. We are building a society of robots, looking for a yes and no solution. Food, and life, is more complicated than that and we can not give up on EDUCATION. Our gov’t gives us dietary guidelines, the food guide pyramid and the nutrition label – yet we (or they) don’t completely follow through with education. Instead, they (or we) move on to to the next easy, silver bullet way to solve or poor food choices. Marion notes that calorie labeling can “begin the education process.” I don’t agree that showing random numbers to people will begin an education process. It may start the conversation but does it support action? Then, Marion notes that “people…will change their behavior…when they realize how many calories are in fast food.” I wish it was this simple! Again, we can throw numbers, symbols, guidelines, recommendations at people but if we continue to miss the boat on education – throughout life and not just in schools – who will really be catching, and implementing the information? And lastly, unless the basic economic tenet of supply and demand has ceased to work – fast food restaurants will not reduce the number of calories in their food offerings unless people demand it, or they are forced to through regulations and/or threats of law suits.

    Give up on calorie disclosure – maybe not. But if we want real change we need to bite the bullet and go back to some good old fashion education and stop dumbing down science and creating a nation of blind-folded followers.

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  • I can tell you that I went to Burger King recently, for the first time in a long time, with some kids in tow. And wow… seeing those calories counts on the menu made me think twice. Instead of the Whopper I wanted, I got something relatively lower in calories and skipped the cheese. Then, I vowed to never go to BK again.

  • I find the last rationale for menu labeling particularly intriguing too. The concept of transparency is being applied to many aspects of society these days-government, media, science, business-and mostly with good effect. For example, HealthRatings (, the online ratings tool for health information sites is not only showing information-consumers where the best information is, but is also showing health information sites how they stack up against their peers. This is prompting some to make improvements to their site which in turn makes them more accountable to their site’s users who presumably were only looking for good information in the first place.

    Is it possible that requiring menu labels will cause restaraunts to sell lower calorie packed, healthier food? I think so.

  • Anthro

    I was at one of those Starbuck’s kiosks inside a Target store and they had just one of their pastries (chocolate chip cookie–med size) labeled with calorie count (360!). It made me think twice, but I bought it, took one bite, decided it didn’t taste good enough to justify skipping my next meal, and threw it in the trash!

    Question is, is Starbuck’s experimenting with posting calories? The cookie was the only item with the calories. I’m guessing the cookie is the LOWEST calorie count they offer. Yikes!

  • Cathy Richards

    The last rationale was proven to be true in the UK when they started their voluntary traffic light nutrition labelling. Food manufacturers started producing versions of favourites with lowered fat, salt, sugar, and calorie content.

    Similarly when Canada started mandatory trans fat labelling — but did not have a trans fat reduction plan in place — manufacturers finally started coming out with trans free alternatives to favourites.

    Most food companies (there are some exceptions) don’t want to look bad, even though sometimes we all want to eat bad!

  • RawlinD

    This is the kind of silliness that really irritates me about nutritional crusaders and do-gooders. Like CSPI.

    “We have no evidence it works, but we think it works anyway, and we’re going to keep doing it because we know it works, even though the data doesn’t say so yet, but some day we’ll design a study that shows us what we want it to show, and then, by gum, we’ll show we were right.”

    This is why people look at nutrition research as religion, not science.

    You’re in the business of getting people to STOP eating what they like.

    Good luck with that.

  • RawlinD, yet it works for me. When I see that the salad I want to order has over 1000 calories, I change my behavior. Instead of ordering as is, I request cheese and dressing on the side so I can control amounts. Perhaps this doesn’t make a huge difference, but it’s one example of a consumer responding to information posted. I have friends, who upon dining at the Cheesecake Factory, decided to split a piece of cheesecake among four people instead of each ordering their own because they saw how many calories were in a piece. It has an effect. Maybe small, but at least now a consumer CAN know what they’re getting instead of just guessing.

  • Alice

    It’s about time! There are nutrition labels on all the other food we purchase, so why not on fast food? Nutrition labels help people make informed choices. So at least if they choose a double whopper with cheese they’ll know exactly what’s in it. Whether it changes behaviour or not is yet to be seen.

  • RawlinD


    Have you lost weight?

    Are you now healthier?

    Or do you just feel more righteous now?

  • Mckenzie

    Your last point about fast food companies changing the calorie content in their items is of great importance. Although many nutritionists and health experts are very aware of the negative consequences fast food can bring to a person’s health, most consumers do not have the same level of understanding. We cannot allow the fast food industry to continue offering poor quality, nutrient-lacking items to the public. The industry products will only change if consumer demand changes. Educating consumers about calorie content is a great way to achieve healthier choices at fast food restaurants. Eric Schlosser begins to expose these problems in his book Fast Food Nation, but unfortunately, consumers need more readily available information. If calories are put directly on fast food packages, there is no room for deception. Consumers will be more aware of what they are consuming, and producers will be more aware of what they are producing. There is also an important element of education. If consumers do not understand the meaning of calories and food labels, giving them such information will not be effective. The only way to resolve fast food industry problems is to take one step at a time.

  • Amy

    I believe that calorie posting in fast food restaurants can be helpful because they force the consumer to reevaluate their food choices and to perhaps make decisions that do not adversely affect weight. Nonetheless, I immediately noticed that these postings do not convey information about the nutritional content of food products. Calorie postings only reflect units of energy. By posting the caloric content of food items on restaurant menus, New York City’s Department of Health compels New Yorkers to make food purchases based on caloric content rather than nutritional content even though the latter measure is more important to overall health and wellbeing. This could be an unfortunate trend as there is no clear negative or positive correlation between caloric content and nutritional content; both high calorie and low calorie foods can be nutritious or innutritious. For example, my lunchtime salads, stuffed with beans and cheeses are both extremely caloric and nutritious. Due to their high caloric content, calorie labeling might dissuade consumers from eating nutrient-rich salads for lunch.
    To remedy this single variable assessment of food, labels should not only include calorie postings but should be expanded to reflect nutritional value. These multi-variable labels would account for a variety of factors that are important to choosing food products, including amount and type of vitamins and antioxidants. The complexity of this proposed measure makes it unlikely that a comprehensive nutrient posting will develop alongside calorie postings. However, the hazy correlation between calories and nutrients, as well as the impact of postings on consumers’ ideas about correct food choices (see: NYU research study), make additional label(s) essential.

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  • kabura

    Posting calories is VERY helpful, especially for people like myself who like to watch what we eat and make smart choices

    Consumers like those featured in the NY times article are already enveloped in the “fat culture” and have given up on living healthy so they eat whatever they want/whenever they want. The sad thing is they pass these habits onto their children. So will calorie posting change the habits of some people (of course not) but for a majority it will help them stick to their diets or open their eyes to some calorie bombs to which they were previously unaware