A research survey designed to study the effectiveness of publishing calorie counts in New York city restaurants reveals that forcing restaurants to disclose calorie content:
It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.
But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
These are fascinating results. People are generally conscious of the change, think they are responding in a positive direction, but actually doing the opposite. I’d be interested to see how people are making more unhealthier choices.
I’d be willing to bet that they are switching to foods that they perceive as being healthier, but actually contain more calories. This could be a result from an information asymmetry. The calorie counts are usually the ‘bare minimum’ of what fast food joints offer, without the fixings, sides and drinks. Perhaps people are switching to lower calorie foods, but getting more of the high caloric ‘frills.’
If we don’t assume rationality, another explanation is that people are unobservant and ignorant about what they’re putting in their mouths.
This also calls into doubt the ability for regulation to achieve the desired affects and highlights the important of price signals, especially because we’re in a recession. People are looking for the cheapest food these days and so will respond to price signals much more strongly than health signals.
HT2 Jeffrey Miron