The Frontal Cortex

Calorie Postings

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Doug Alder
    October 6, 2009

    I’m troubled with the last paragraph in your quote. Are they saying that the people who had said they made better decision in fact had not, or that over all customers the total had gone up.

    If it was the former then they could only compare previous selections by those customers over current selection by the same customers to be able to make that claim.

  2. #2 Jake
    October 6, 2009

    I see what you’re saying, Jonah, about people choosing what’s going to be the most rewarding to them. But isn’t that what most people were already doing? In order for the calorie postings to be affecting this, people would have to directly equate number of calories with anticipated degree of pleasure. This is not implausible, but I suspect that the explanation is subtly different.

    It could be that having this numerical calorie information presented along with the numerical price information influences the decision because it gives us a clear rule for determining the value of each item: caloric bang for the buck. This is not to say that people sit down and calculate the price per calorie of each item on the menu–but it *is* to say that something not unlike this process is very likely happening.

    For example: Do I want a Quarter Pounder? Hmm, that sounds good, and a dollar isn’t a bad price. But wait–for just 50 more cents, I can get a Big Mac, and that will give me almost double the calories! Well, they are both pretty tasty sandwiches, but I probably should save a bit of money and go for the Big Mac… (this financial reasoning may seem backward, but it’s exactly how places like Costco and Sam’s Club make their business.)

    This is closely related to work by behavioral economists on the asymmetric dominance or “decoy” effect. Basically, having the calorie information “simplifies” the otherwise difficult decision of, say, Quarter Pounder vs. Big Mac (two very different sandwiches, as some would argue) by showing that–all other uncertainty aside–one sandwich is *clearly* superior in at least one way: calories per dollar. This sandwich then becomes a rather clear choice, as it saves us from having to consider the difficult judgment of whether we really feel more in the mood for a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder.

    You could say that we tend to be misers in both the financial and cognitive domains.

  3. #3 Undergrad
    October 6, 2009

    My initial thought after the 1st paragraph was this:

    People were making healthier decisions without caloric information because they were going off of this mental image of fries or Big Macs as a grease-laden heart attack on a plate. Now that vague mental impression has been replaced by a quantified number, a known quantity, which is much easier to consider and then dismiss.

    So now, when they see a Big Mac, they think, “Oh, 700 calories, I’m allotted 2,000 a day, and 700 is less than 2,000″ whereas before, it was a more intangible feeling of fatness-grease-ew-gross-I-don’t-want-to-get-fat-so-I’m-getting-Filet-O’Fish.

  4. #4 Julie F.
    October 6, 2009

    I’m not sure that the calorie density of a food would equate with our likelihood of choosing it as a rewarding treat. Excuse me if I’m stating the obvious, but I think the visible nutrition information could fail for the same reason extremely prohibitive diets fail: the forbidden becomes the desired. Once you trigger all the “I shouldn’t…” statements, that chocolate chip cookie becomes harder to resist than ever; harder, perhaps, than when you were blissfully (or intentionally) ignorant of the weight, both figurative and literal, that your choices carried.

    In addition, many may have the attitude displayed by Ms. Coates in the Times article. It’s self-defeating and it’s ubiquitous in our country- “I’m already screwed; I’ll just go for it.” This is certainly a view that is certainly understandable and sympathetic. I don’t know if this could be called a defense mechanism, or a rationalization, or what have you. But it is one example of a time when your mind is most certainly not your ally. One solution: limit the number of times people have to make these difficult decisions. We like to think we can exhibit wise self-control at the drop of a hat, but we can’t always- and we would be better off knowing that. So, and here’s a best-case scenario and somewhat unlikely (but maybe someday!) solution: why not eliminate as much unhealthy food from the food chain as possible? With a decline in availability would come a decline in consumption, as people would substitute other (more healthful) choices

    Finally, the study focused on lower-income neighborhoods, which is important to consider. Economizing your calories is absolutely a concern. But what is more concerning is that the least healthy calories, as displayed by Mr. Mitchell in the article, are generally the cheapest and most readily available type of calories in low-income neighborhoods. It is, simply put, morally reprehensible that this is the case. As Washington continues to battle it out over healthcare, Michael Pollan has pointed out loud and clear (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/opinion/10pollan.html): it is nothing less than vital to reform the food industry in tandem with the healthcare industry.

  5. #5 Ian M.
    October 8, 2009

    I just looked at the actual article (“Calorie Labeling And Food Choices: A First Look At The Effects On Low-Income People In New York City” by Elbel, et al.) There are other factors in the original article which went unmentioned, such as consumers under the age of 35 did purchase less calories after exposure to labels, the postlabeling data survey periods were perhaps too short (4 wks), and that consumers chose less saturated fat but more calories. It’s an interesting data set, and the least interesting thing was plucked out by the Times.

    Oh, and the slightly more? From 825 to 846 calories (2.5%). If you really are wondering about these results, as you state in the last paragraph, perhaps you should read the actual journal article.

  6. #6 Martin Zibauer
    October 8, 2009

    If our brains have a built-in calorie seeker, wouldn’t we already be choosing the highest-calorie option almost all the time, even without menu labelling? As a proud sample of one, in all those times I’ve really craved a salad or a celery stick, I can’t imagine that my brain actually wanted a Big Mac.

  7. #7 Kamil
    October 10, 2009

    Nothing new here. The same effect occurs in the story from Malcom Gladwell. When the tabacco companies had to show the warning signs on their packages this didn’t drive to reducing smolers. The oposite was the result. As Jonah writes here, we people are not rational being:)

  8. #8 Kamil
    October 10, 2009

    Nothing new here. The same effect occurs in the story from Malcom Gladwellin. When the tabacco companies had to show the warning signs on their packages this didn’t drive to reducing smokers. The oposite bwas the result. As Jonah writes here, we people aren’t rational creatures. We do what we thinh we should do not what we should do.

  9. #9 Janet Paskin
    October 19, 2009

    I’d suggest there’s another cognitive bias going on here. At a Starbucks, it’s hard to find anything under 250 calories (oatmeal, anyone?); at a McDonald’s, the baseline is more like 350-500 cal. And the highest calorie option is off the charts, usually over 1,000 calories. So compared to something that’s, say, 1,250 calories, a 700 cal. double-stack seems downright moderate. In that way, the calorie counts might be inadvertently giving people permission to eat more, by establishing reference points on both sides.

  10. #10 Heather
    November 20, 2009

    My guess is that if you still have few dollars to spend on your meals the number of calories is completely irrelevant, it doesn’t change your socioeconomic situation. It’s really a shame that these dollars being spent on calorie testing, new menu boards, policing compliance, etc., can’t be spent to get less expensive, healthy food to the people who need it most.

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