As a Starbuckian in the New York City region, I get to live one of the latest trends up close and personal: while a nation debates the moves of "Nanny" Bloomberg to reign in health issues and food, I get the day to day insight on what it means to eliminate trans-fats, or put calorie counts on a menu.
At least 2 or 3 times a week, someone will ask, "So... have people stopped eating now that the calorie counts are there?" or some such question meant to get us to admit, sadly, that everything goes to hell when people discover that cake is, well, fattening. (The next most popular question is "are you losing business because of Dunkin Donuts", because they recently opened up near us. No.)
The reality is not that simple - and it's the reason why, while I was mildly annoyed with the idea of the counts, I've become much more inclined to back them. If you generally favor people being informed, I think you will probably agree - it's better to provide more information rather than less, and calorie counts on menus do provide the initial pieces of information for people to make better, or at least different, decisions. And that seems like a good thing. A very good thing.
Still, it's not everything. Not all decisions based on calories turn out to be helpful - a distinct subset of people who take in the information seem to become bargainers, adding calories here (whip cream!), subtracting calories there (nonfat milk!) in ways that don't really help the bottom line. There's the "what the hell, I'll splurge" crowd that always seem to be able to justify a brownie, this time, in exchange for some other transaction later... and like some sort of pusher, I find myself using the "why don't you splurge" line a lot less.
But people ask, and what we've found, in our slightly more than anecdotal, but not formal study, way is that calorie counts get a lot of people to think and change their order. Not give up entirely and leave, and not swing (mostly) to extremes. But to do things a little differently - to try the skim milk, or the sugar free syrup. Or the pastry with fewer calories.
I bring this up because, as it turns out, actual studies confirm much the same thing. A new study of Starbucks found that people's food choices are in fact changing:
average calories per transaction falls by 6%. The effect is almost entirely related to changes in consumers’ food choices—there is almost no change in purchases of beverage calories. There is no impact on Starbucks profit on average, and for the subset of stores located close to their competitor Dunkin Donuts, the effect of calorie posting is actually to increase Starbucks revenue. Survey evidence and analysis of commuters suggest the mechanism for the effect is a combination of learning and salience.
A new study in Pediatrics suggests similar things about parents and their choices for kids: armed with information, parents make healthier, lower calorie choices.
The thing is... we can give the information... but we can't expect the choices. Not all behavior changes because of calorie counts, and I think a lot of food activists don't seem to know how to draw a distinction between a suggestion and a requirement. We can require calorie counts on menus (and we can, and should, require greater clarity in those counts at many fast food restaurants)... but we cannot insist everyone make the choices we'd like them to make. In part because we don't have that kind of control... but also because, as I've said before, this notion that we "know" what every person needs to be eating is itself a bit of a fallacy.
Mostly, I think Bloomberg got it right, too, in starting with the basics. Calorie counts is a start. Trans fats is a start. And reducing sodium, as he's proposed, is a good next step. Let's get down the basics of food information and policy... and then let's see if we need to do more. Give the food for thought... and don't try to do the thinking for everyone else.