A new paper by National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that calorie labels on restaurant menus have an influence on consumer decisions. The paper also explains why such policies work and how results vary across different populations.

Calorie labeling laws were first used in New York City in 2006 as a way to educate and encourage consumers to make the healthy choice. Since May 2018, chain restaurants are required to use calorie labeling on all menu and menu board items. The federal menu labeling law was championed by Senator Tom Harkin (retired) and included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Calorie labeling is meant to “nudge” consumers to make healthier selections when eating out and is party of a growing body of information that demonstrates how behavioral economics can be used in policy to influence positive behavior change.

The use of a calorie labeling law led to a decrease in BMI of 0.17 mg/k2 (equivalent to a 1.5-pound decrease in weight), proving that the policy works. However, the study also found that calorie labeling resulted in a higher moral cost to healthy weight individuals. That means that although there was a decrease in weight, there was a corresponding decrease in life satisfaction in healthy weight individuals, possibly from feelings of guilt or dissatisfaction related to food choice.

The NBER study compared regions of the country that were already mandating the calorie labeling policy (prior to 2008) to regions that had not yet implemented it and the different populations within the regions to better understand:

  1. the effect of calorie labeling on health outcomes (if the policy works)
  2. behavioral response to the policy (why the policy works)
  3. individual response to the policy (how the policy differs across population segments).

The authors concluded that the policy does produce the intended policy outcomes as evidenced by the reduction in BMI/weight, but future research should explore how to use “nudges” in a way that does not have a moral cost.

Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt, PhD, RDN, LD, Harkin Institute Associate Director of Wellness and Nutrition Policy

Address: 2429 University Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50311 Phone: 515-271-3623 Fax Number: 515-271-3631 Email: harkininstitute@drake.edu Office Hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.