Hell Yeah We Want Fries With That

Surprise! Calorie labeling doesn't change the way people eat

It seems like a sane, simple, sensible step toward tackling America’s, um, burgeoning obesity problem: have fast-food joints display calorie counts for everything they serve. That’s why a fast-food calorie-labeling requirement was part of President Obama’s health-care reform package. Surely, seeing right there in black and white that Burger King’s Triple Whopper with Cheese contains 1,230 calories (not to mention 82 grams of fat, or 126 percent of your recommended daily fat intake) will convince you to opt instead for the plain old cheeseburger, which has a mere 330 calories (and only 16 grams of fat).

The trouble is, we don’t care how many calories are in the large fries. Scientists have gone and proven it, in an experiment.

NYU researchers conducted surveys and collected receipts from BK, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC restaurants in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, which requires calorie labels, and Newark, New Jersey, which doesn’t. They studied both parents who were choosing food for their kids, and older kids who were selecting their own. Before and after labeling, kids consumed an average 645 calories per fast-food meal—and a third of them reported eating fast food six or more times a week. While the kids noticed the nutrition labeling, 90 percent said the labels didn’t influence their food choices. What did? Taste, with a full 72 percent reporting it was the most important factor in what they ordered.

Maybe that explains why fast-food companies, which you might expect to have fought the labeling requirement, instead requested that Congress establish a national labeling standard. They had complete faith that the allure of the KFC Double Down and Wendy’s M&M Twisted Frostie would survive schoolmarmish attempts to scare consumers away. Brian Elbel, the lead scientist in the NYU research, told the New York Times, “There are a lot of things that go into you choosing the large french fries aside from just the knowledge part of it.” If reason ruled at the drive-in window, we’d all be thin. But what force hath reason against the wafting scent of a flame-broiled burger?