A new study has determined that calorie labeling on fast food menus does not impact consumers’ choices in any significant way—which is to say, pretty much at all. What were the odds?
100%. They were always 100%.
Let’s leave aside any possible methodological issues and take this study at face value for a sec. Or even pretend it away entirely, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. The study was done based on Philadelphia already having such labeling laws, but in May all major fast food chains will have to follow suit. Is it even worth it? The study says no, this is yet another bonehead move by the government to combat a problem with a bad solution. Oh sure, it’s better than that stupid rule in NYC that you can’t get more than a 16 oz. soda with your meal, because at least it’s putting information in front of people and letting them make their own choices rather than forcing them to accept whatever arbitrary rules they’re given, but it’s meaningless because this information simply does not matter to most people.
The problem with this approach is blindingly obvious, and yet the irony is lost on those who conducted the study.
To be effective, nutrition labeling must be clearer and larger. It must also reach regular fast-food eaters—people who expressed more concern with cost and convenience than nutrition, [study author Andrew] Breck and his colleagues found.
Say what now? Breck hits the problem right on the head without acknowledging the fundamental reality that it’s intractable, or understanding the folly in thinking otherwise.
People who prioritize cost and convenience over nutrition will never respond to labeling, even if it’s shoved directly in their faces. In fact the more onerous such labeling gets, you might even reasonably expect people to straight-up rebel. After all, nobody likes the Food Nazis but themselves, and even that’s questionable. (I’ve always suspected Food Nazis suffer from the kind of deeply internalized self-loathing that tends to push people to boss others around.)
Everybody, literally everybody knows that a steady diet of fast food is simply not good for you. (Although funnily enough, researchers who’ve tried it while practicing reasonable portion control found they could still lose weight on fast food.) Having a Big Mac or a Whopper for every meal is just plain stupid, which is why almost nobody does that. In fact it’s pretty much always cheaper and healthier to cook at home. But fast food wins when it becomes the most attractive option, and that happens under several circumstances:
- You crave a particular food item.
- You’re out of the house and hungry, and quicker is better.
- You’re home, but nothing you have in the house sounds good.
- You’re home, but cooking anything will take too long and time is severely limited (by hunger, schedule, or any other reason).
That list is by no means exhaustive. The point is, nutritional labeling will never, ever make a dent in any of those reasons. By the time someone reads the label, they’re already planning to order. If you want to get people to eat less fast food, you have to give them better options to deal with the situations that send them to the drive-thru. The place to redirect towards better eating habits is in the kitchen and around the home. And that is a very, very difficult prospect.
Hence why people run to simple but pointless interventions at the wrong end of the decision chain, because they think doing something, even if it’s useless and stupid and possibly costly, is better than nothing at all. Almost no problems actually work that way. If you’ve ever had the impulse to defend a stupid decision based on the idea that it’s better than nothing, even if there are arguments as to how it can make things worse in some way, give yourself a mighty slap. And if that kind of thinking is ingrained in you, keep slapping until common sense prevails or you bleed out.
Flailing does not solve problems. Limiting what people can buy for themselves is flailing. Forcing restaurant chains to engage in labeling that will have absolutely no effect is flailing. Just because the status quo sucks doesn’t mean you can fix it by throwing darts. Breck correctly identifies why the labeling fails, but has the audacity to suggest that making the labels bigger and more obvious—which addresses none of those reasons—could accomplish anything different. If you want to attack the obesity problem, you have to look at the whys. And that will lead right back to:
- The food pyramid is a load of steaming garbage.
- We have an imbalance of omega-6 fats in our diet instead of also getting plenty of omega-3. (Reason: omega-3’s go bad faster; packaged food makers don’t like them.)
- Family dinners are less common than they used to be.
- Home cooking is less common than it used to be.
None of those problems have easy answers either. But you won’t fix any of them by flailing.