Will posting calorie labels help?

The label on the packaging of a sandwich shows its nutritional value.

Dan Ariely


Kai Ryssdal: There was clearly a lot in the health care bill. Some of which is complicated health policy stuff, and some of which is more simple. One of the seemingly simple things was a requirement that restaurants post nutrition information in plain sight. Theory being that it'll get us to make better food choices and hopefully prevent some of problems that come with unhealthy eating.

Dan Ariely teaches behavioral economy at Duke University. He points out that what seems simple is not always so. Dan, it's good to talk to you again.

DAN ARIELY: Same here.

Ryssdal: All right, so let's cut to the chase. These calorie labels that we are seeing in some places, and now we'll see in way more places, do they work?

ARIELY: So far the evidence is no. You put them up, and you would think that they would be very helpful, right? You tell people what the calories are, but all the research done so far, ours and other people, show that this doesn't work. Basically we got the help of one fast-food Chinese place, we had them holed off for a while, so we could track what people were doing. Then they put calorie labeling, we tracked what people were doing. Turns out the effect is very, very close to zero.

Ryssdal: All right, why?

ARIELY: So I think there are two main reasons. The first one is that the number is not very informative. Do you know how much calories you are supposed to eat?

Ryssdal: Yeah, no, I have no idea. It's like, I don't know, 2,000... 4,000? I don't know, I don't know.

ARIELY: And what you're supposed to eat, are you eating close to that?

Ryssdal: Again, I don't know.

ARIELY: You have any feeling about how much you're eating?

Ryssdal: Not a single clue.

ARIELY: That's right. So that I think is the first point is that we tell people what the numbers are, but the number itself is not very informative. The second reason is that we are getting people who already made a decision about which restaurant to enter. So if you go into McDonald's or you go into a fast-food Chinese place, you're not going to look at the board and say, oh my goodness, I didn't know these places were so calorie full, let me go somewhere else.

Ryssdal: I'm shocked.

ARIELY: I'm shocked, let me go somewhere else.

Ryssdal: OK, so assuming I walk in the door thinking I'm going to have orange chicken or whatever it is, regardless of what the sign says, how do you get people to change their behavior?

ARIELY: OK, that's the next thing we did, which is after being disappointed with the calorie labeling, we said so what can we do. And if you think about it what lots of fast-food places do is that they give you a lot of cheap, free calories that make the portions look big. Rice, or noodles, or a big order of french fries. All of those things are calorie full, they make the meal look bigger, they don't cost much, and they get you to have many, many more calories. So we asked people if they would be willing to take half a portion of rice if we give them a discount for 25 cents, and about 40 percent of the people went for this offer. Now, we did this for a while. Imagine that we're doing it for a couple of weeks, and everybody get used to this deal, and so on, and then we take the deal away. Turns out under those conditions nobody asks for it. Nobody says, hey, last week you did this, can you give me less rice? Now they get the full amount of rice, and what do they do? They finish the whole amount. So people not only need this nudge, this reminder, but they need to have it at the right moment when they're tempted, and they're not coming up with it themselves.

Ryssdal: All right, but here's the thing if I'm running that Chinese restaurant, and I can give you cheap, free calories with a lot of rice and get my extra 25 cents, it cuts into my profit margin if you take away the rice.

ARIELY: That's right. Now the rest of them have to decide what they want to do. So we tried another promotion in which we just offered people if they wanted half the amount of rice. There was no financial incentive in it. And guess what, almost the same amount of people took the half portion of rice even when there was no payment involved with it.

Ryssdal: One more question. What happens when these calorie notices, as they inevitably will, fade into the observational background, when people no longer see them because they've been up there for so long, then what's going to happen?

ARIELY: Well, you know, there's no effect now, so how could get it worse? It was a really nice idea, really thoughtful idea to create it. It turns out it doesn't work. That's OK. But I don't see why now we're going to create all this regulation that is forcing everybody to do this basically useless thing of putting these calorie labels up.

Ryssdal: Dan Ariely teaches behavioral economics at Duke University. His book is called "Predictably Irrational." Dan, thanks a lot.

ARIELY: My pleasure.

Dan Ariely


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