A new study reveals that all those unappetizing calorie counts on New York City menus – do you really want to know how much sugar is in a Frappuccino? Or that an Olive Garden breadstick contains hundreds of calories? – don’t lead to more responsible food decisions. Here’s the Times:
The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.
It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.
But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
The underlying assumption behind the regulations was that more information would lead to healthier choices. People would suddenly realize that an apple fritter isn’t a healthy breakfast, and that those Burger King specials – I’m looking at you BK Quad Stacker – contained way too much energy. (1010 calories, to be precise.) But consumers, of course, aren’t rational creatures – our food decisions are typically driven by emotional desire, not explicit calculations of calorie counts. And so we continue to chase pleasure, even though we now know exactly how much fatter our pleasure will make us.
Part of the challenge is that energy itself is delicious. (I’ve written about this research before.) According to a recent paper in Neuron, the brain also receives rewarding input from metabolic processes that have nothing to do with the tongue. When you eat at McDonald’s, or order that venti mocha latte, a big part of the pleasure comes from the fact that the food is sustenance, fuel, energy. The end result is that even mediocre food is a little rewarding.
In fact, I wonder if part of the reason the calorie information led to the consumption of more calories (and not less) is that people subconsciously chose items that would give them more pleasure. If that’s the case – if we are implicitly aware of this second reward pathway in the brain – then nutritional information will often backfire, as people are drawn to the precise foods they should avoid.