Blinded by the Dollar Menu
by Kelvin Wade
Surprise. A new study published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that calorie information in fast food restaurants doesn’t change people’s eating habits.
The study, conducted by a professor at the New York University School of Medicine, covered four national fast food restaurants in the New York area, with a control restaurant in Newark, New Jersey. Examiners monitored customers’ orders before the nutritional information was displayed and afterwards.
Though most consumers were aware of the new calorie displays, they still ate like razorbacks. It showed there was no difference in calories no matter whether parents ordered for little children, or let them order for themselves.
This should come as a shock to no one.
We’ve had warning labels on cigarettes since 1966 and millions still smoke. Other countries put grisly photos of diseased lungs and other organs right on the pack of cigarettes and it seemingly has little effect. In the case of fast food, we’re not even talking about warnings. There’s no signs saying, “Indulge here and you’ll become as wide as you are tall,” “Diabetes-in-a-bag” or “Coronaries: Over 1 Million served.” It’s just caloric information that’s always been available upon request or on the company’s website.
As I pointed out in my blog (Wading In, Jan 27, 2011, “Fast, Cheap and Delicious”), Americans want food that is… well… fast, cheap and delicious. That’s why I think Taco Bell overreacted when a group of Alabama attorneys sued claiming the chain’s tacos only contained one-third beef. Taco Bell’s parent company took out full-page ads in newspapers and even gave away free tacos.
Why? Taco Bell eaters don’t care what kind of meat is in their food. It’s delicious. The people stopping by a fast food drive thru after the bars close aren’t particularly calorie conscious nor do they care where or how the food is prepared. Since, Americans like fast food fast, cheap and delicious, if a restaurateur satisfies those three things, little else matters.
Calorie conscious consumers, for the most part, aren’t eating in fast food establishments. It’s not to say posting calorie information is a bad idea. It’s just a predictably ineffective way to motivate fast food consumers to eat healthier.
To affect Americans who’ve grown up overindulging on fast, cheap and delicious food, the best way is the same way cigarette smoking has been impacted: taking “cheap” out of the equation. You do that with something libertarians hate: fast food taxes. It’s a tax that people can avoid paying. It’s a user fee that only affects those who want to indulge.
Look at smoking. It’s sort of surprising all the people I’ve heard start to quit because it had grown too expensive, rather than quitting for health reasons. If cigarettes had a Dollar Menu, there’d be a lot more smoking in this country. Even though we’re dealing with addictive substances, cost is a motivator.
Believe me, it’s not going to solve the obesity problem. But it’s a lot more effective than showing people the obvious fact that fast food contains high calories.