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Monday, October 12, 2009

Does calorie-labeling matter, and other weighty questions 


At some point in the last year I visited a Starbucks in Mike Bloomberg's nanny-state New York and read the locally-required calorie counts on all the pastries and other delectables. The horror of the high numbers not only scared me off buying a scone in the moment, but has converted me to fruit and oatmeal wherever I visit Starbucks. Because, you know, the pastries on the other side of the bridges and tunnels are probably as caloric as those in Manhattan.

Perhaps coincidentally, I've lost a lot of weight in the last year.

It therefore surprised me to read the abstract to this study, which concluded that calorie labels had no effect on the actual consumption patterns of lower-income foodies:

We examined the influence of menu calorie labels on fast food choices in the wake of New York City's labeling mandate. Receipts and survey responses were collected from 1,156 adults at fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority New York communities. These were compared to a sample in Newark, New Jersey, a city that had not introduced menu labeling. We found that 27.7 percent who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices. However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling. We encourage more research on menu labeling and greater attention to evaluating and implementing other obesity-related policies.

This of course invites the question, do higher income or more educated populations respond differently -- as I do -- to calorie labels on restaurant food? If so, this bit of nanny-statism might actually widen the health gap between rich and poor. If that is true, would the right response be even more coercion -- perhaps substantive regulation of restaurant food -- or less? Or should we continue to require the disclosure at no small expense to restaurants knowing that it will help affluent people and not help poor people?

This reminds me of a study I saw in college, in which it was alleged that "Sesame Street" and other educational programs for children actually widened the achievement gap between rich and poor. The rich, it seemed, ordered or motivated their children to watch enriching shows that did, in fact, accelerate reading and arithmetic, but the poor did not.

Perhaps in order to make a more perfect welfare state we need to understand why the poor do not make use of information that could improve their lives. Is it that they do not understand the information, or is it that their options are such that they make different but otherwise rational choices about the timing of gratification? Perhaps a tasty Big Mac and fries now is a good way to go if it is your greatest pleasure in life.

Release the hounds.

9 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Oct 13, 12:56:00 AM:

I find the nutrition labeling quite useful, particularly the fat content. Others (diabetics/heart patients) likely find salt and carbohydrate and sugar) content helpful. I particularly am glad that the fast food restaurants label. Since I had to start dieting some (for heart reasons), I find it quite useful.

This is a case where government regulation is useful (as with fire code regulations). It's not something that consumers could ever colllectively negotiate and the amount of value involved in any one product is so infintesimal that the market will never lead to a solution. (No good economist believes the market can satisfy all human preference sets, even if there ought to be a Pareto optimal result.)

Who uses the labels and why, etc., is no different a question than who is best able (money aside) to access the benefits of quality health care in America -- those who are best educated will always be best able to access -- holding income, wealth, and frankly any other factor other than being in a coma, constant.

Pretty simple, I think.

No reason for hounds.  

By Blogger Don Cox, at Tue Oct 13, 05:26:00 AM:

The verification word this time is "Xacist", so maybe I had better not comment.

"The poor" covers a big range of people, but I think a high proportion are poor because they are of low ability, and often this is inherited. Left-wingers like to play down the influence of heredity, hoping that if conditions are improved, all the poor folk will improve too. I think not.

Obviously there are many poor people who have plenty of ability and will rise if given the least opportunity, but IMO the proportion of congenitally incompetent people is higher among low income groups.  

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By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Oct 13, 06:21:00 AM:

Gotta agree with the first commenter in general, but of course I have something to add as well.

Even if the result of the food labeling primarily inures to the benefit of wealthier individuals, it obviously improves the health of the public overall, which I think all can agree is a public (even if primarily, private) good.

Also, given the NYC probably has more wealthy people, per capita, than most other US cities, it seems that in this instance the regulation has been put into place in the area that it can do the most good.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Tue Oct 13, 07:08:00 AM:

I all comes down to how one is raised and how one is educated.

* You have to be able to read and understnad the label.

* You have to exercise deferred gratification.

* You have to be able to plan for the future.

Utopians fail to understand that redistribution of wealth is a uperficial tool for social "justice". The common sense and work ethic that produced the wealth cannot be "redistributed".

Give everybody the same pile of money...and in ten years the "wealthy" will be wealthy again and the "poor" will be poor again.

Simple logic, actually.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Tue Oct 13, 07:09:00 AM:

Man...I really need a new keyboard!  

By Anonymous nobrainer, at Tue Oct 13, 01:46:00 PM:

Within the last few years there was a study that tested people on their ability to use nutrition labels to inform their consumption. As I recall, it found that a sizable minority -- if not a majority -- were simply unable to do the the math required for the label to do any good.

[Sorry, I don't have the link to the study nor the time to find it right now.]  

By Blogger RPD, at Tue Oct 13, 01:55:00 PM:

You also have to consider shopping patterns. Where the comfortable will shop food with quality and a balanced diet in mind, the working poor are more likely the most quantity for the least dollars. This tends to be starchy, highly processed stuff.  

By Blogger Dan Kauffman, at Thu Oct 15, 05:38:00 PM:

"Perhaps in order to make a more perfect welfare state we need to understand why the poor do not make use of information that could improve their lives."

You are looking at it backwards, it is simply that those who DO make use of information improve their lives

Like those who are drowning and grab a life ring will be saved and those who do not and just thrash around will sink below the waves.

Now the poor can and do use information to improve their lives, but then they do not remain poor and the rich who do not, do not remain rich,  

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