60 Minutes on Calorie Disclosures

Although we discussed this issue earlier, I can’t help to point to a new segment on 60 Minutes exploring the issue of whether big chain restaurants should have to disclose the amount of calories in their food products (Video).

The denialism from the industry on this issue is pretty clear, but what’s interesting about the segment is the explanation of consumer biases that prevent the market forces from addressing this problem. One of the most basic forces here is optimism–consumers don’t think bad things will happen to them, generally, and in this context, optimism translates into seriously underestimating the caloric value of foods. And that optimism operates more strongly when a consumer thinks that the food is healthy (i.e., because they saw Subway commercials or the like):

Brian Wansink is a nutrition and marketing professor at Cornell University. He uses the mall as a laboratory, observing the food-court crowd like other scientists study rare tribes.

Wansink, who even wrote a book called “Mindless Eating,” finds that people always underestimate calories, but they get it especially wrong when they’re eating something they think is healthy.

On one of his recent “observation trips,” Wansink concentrated on meals from Subway, which markets itself as the healthy fast-food alternative. He asked people to estimate the calories of an especially caloric combo: a foot-long Subway sandwich with mayo, chips and juice.

“Now for this you estimated that it had about 300 calories,” Wansink pointed out to a man. “In reality it has 1,390.”

“When people are eating in a restaurant that they think is healthy, people grossly underestimate how much they eat by about 50 percent,” Wansink explains.

What’s interesting is that the standard business line is that more information is good for consumers, but here, they don’t want consumers to have ready access to information that could help them make better decisions about what to eat.


  1. CBC’s Marketplace show had an interesting episode where they also demolish the restaurant industry’s arguments about not putting calorie information on menus. (They showed the info easily would fit on menus at Boston Pizza, for instance.)

  2. The obstacle isn’t about helping consumers make better decisions about what to eat; it’s about helping consumers make better decisions about what NOT to eat. Suddenly the Kill-em-Slowly burger isn’t selling the way it used to; employees are laid off; stores are shut down; the stocks tank; the person responsible for posting the consumer information leaps (or is pushed) off a tall building.

    Or, they just don’t post the information. Everyone (who matters) is happy. Customers may die 20 years before their time, but until they do, they’ll keep coming back for that wonderful Kill-em-Slowly burger.

    Mmmm, I’m gettin’ hungry!

  3. Look, I know you guys mean well. But I think the premise of the 60 Minutes piece is baloney. At Harvard Square is an upscalish coffee shop called Au Bon Pain. Let’s have big honking caloric and nutritional information right there on the menu board. (Maybe they do; it’s been a while. No, I didn’t go to Harvard.) Or how about more gentrified dining places, like sushi restaurants in Coolidge Corner or even more refined establishments. That’s not going to fly, isn’t it? We wouldn’t want to put a damper on the dining enjoyment of the creative class. No, we don’t want to hector affluent, educated thin people, just the fattie proles who don’t know any better.

    In my college experience, I attended both a community college and a first tier private university. Only one of those was required to display big, ugly posters warning of the dangers of being overweight. Want to guess which one that was?

    If we are going to hector, nanny, and scold (i.e. “inform”), let’s do it to everyone.

    And if I didn’t have gluten intolerance, I would have had a McRib for dinner.

  4. But what’s wrong with starting with large chain restaurants? They create mass-produced food, which would be the easiest to measure with some reasonable amount of accuracy.

  5. Very well. Start with the chains – the places that Patton Oswalt loves to rip on like Taco Bell and Olive Garden – then get the other kinds of restaurants after a grace period to adjust. All restaurants – including those that serve upscale cupcakes, nouvelle cuisine, fusion, molecular gastronomy etc. Indie hole in the wall diners, new immigrant restaurants, and trendoid places that change menus frequently can guesstimate, within reason. Fair is fair.

  6. This isn’t really about fairness; it’s about saying that because not everyone is subject to the disclosure, it should not apply to anyone. We make exceptions in application of laws, and I doubt that these types of rules are ever practical for certain restaurants, like where I ate tonight–the Slanted Door. The menu changes too regularly, but also, people don’t treat the place like a cafeteria. McDonalds is a cafeteria for a significant portion of the population, as is starbucks. We’d have some changes in behavior at both places if there were prominent calorie disclosures.

  7. I won’t flog the issue to death, but I’ll try to make my position clear. I’m not trying to be Swiftian or making a reductio ad absurdum. I am not a libertarian. I don’t care about fairness to business, but equal treatment of consumers. I’m not opposed to displays of calories in restaurants on principle. They are required on food labels.

    I think a caloric nutrition estimate is feasible – perhaps not politically so – for a wide range of restaurants and cafes. If it has to be limited to chains due to political feasibility, that’s OK. Just as long as the upscale chains are also covered. Legal Seafoods has over 30 locations, Au Bon Pain has hundreds. The difference between a special gourmet outing and a routine “cafeteria” experience is often more of a matter of customer income, class, and location than the nature of the establishment itself.

    I’ve long been aware of the issue; in high school I listened to MDC singing about corporate deathburgers. Fast food has acquired a powerful (visceral, really) symbolic resonance that transcends the wonky nutritional science and public policy side of the issue.

  8. suntanner

    What’s interesting is that the standard business line is that more information is good for consumers

    I’ve never found that to be the “standard” business line. Business fought the ingredient labels on retail food products and nutrition labeling tooth and nail. Many products still don’t have to list ingredients.

  9. According to the 60 Minutes report, the original rule applied to bigger chain restaurants because they already had the nutritional information available, while smaller, perhaps local stores, didn’t. It would have placed a big burden on those smaller stores to try to measure the caloric content of their food.

    The real point of the rule is behavior modification rather than information. I think the Wendy’s (or was it McDonald’s?) rep made a good point that the information is, indeed, already available to anyone interested enough in looking. Since people go to these restaurants many times, they have ample opportunity to find the information once, and then make their choices in the future accordingly. If consumers acted rationally, everything that is needed is already available for these restaurants. However, since people do not act rationally, the hope is that by making the caloric content prominent, behavior might be changed at the moment of purchase.

  10. Fnord Prefect

    I agree with Colugo. I have at various times kept a food diary. It is not all that difficult to use a food scale or otherwise estimate quite accurately portion sizes of ingredients in a dish, and calculate nutritional information. If I can do it every meal in a few minutes (and every ingredient already has established information available very easily on the tubes) then even the most swiftly changing restaurant can do it when they create a new dish. Actually when I wanted nutrition info from fast food it is easily available on the web, it’s the other restaurants that you have no idea what you are getting because it is not mass produced. Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing mass-produced food is healthier or tastier. But you know what you are getting. I remember my wife ordered stir-fried vegetables (something I make at home with very little oil or heavy sauce) trying to be healthy and later found out it was 2000 calories and the highest calorie, highest fat item on the menu. (I am sure she ate it in multiple meals after seeing it). The study quoted above makes this point, it is when people are trying to make healthy choices (which is probably not at McDonalds) that they should have access to nutrition information.

  11. Brendan S

    I think the logical error that’s being committed here, ultimately, is that overweight people want to do the work to become not overweight.

    People TALK about wanting to loose weight, but realistically, these same people know what choices are going to help them with this goal.

    I’m not a libertarian either. I’m not all Ra-Ra McDonalds or Subway. But, even if you required McDonalds to bake their buns with the number of calories of the burger on the bun top, I don’t think people would significantly affect their eating habits.

    The point of caloric underestimation is interesting, and a bias most people have in most things. But how many people really know that a calorie (Or, kilocalorie, if you want to be technical) means? How many people, especially of the ilk that you’re trying to get your message to, Actually know how many calories they need to eat a day. So A Big Mac and Fries is 1000 calories (or so). Is that a lot? A little?

    I just think this is the wrong place to address the problem.

  12. Fnord Prefect

    especially of the ilk that you’re trying to get your message to

    It is not about the futility trying to edumacate the poor, fat morons, you condescending prick. It is about providing information to those who want it. The arguement that it is an undue burden to provide this information is crap. The arguement that the hoi polloi is too danged stupid to effectively use this information is also crap.

  13. Caledonian

    I’m not a libertarian, either. But I don’t think the purpose of law should be to manipulate people until they behave the way you think they should.

    There are already plenty of ways that people can see just how unhealthy fast food is – in quite a few cases, all they have to do is turn over their paper tray covers or pick up a pamphlet by the ketchup dispensers. These new demands aren’t about making information available to people so they can make a choice – which is what ingredient lists and accessible nutritional information were all about – it’s about trying to dissuade them from eating fast food.

    “When a reformer sees his efforts have had no effect, he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.”

  14. Brendan S

    You say yourself that the information is already there for the people who want it at the restaurants targeted by this campaign.

    I actually agree with you that all restaurants SHOULD provide this information. Subway / McDonalds / Wendy’s whoever ALREADY DOES. The argument is that just making it available isn’t enough, and that they should thrust it upon people, as if this is going to make them change their ways.

  15. Fnord Prefect

    I got a bit hostile there, apologies. I guess my point was that I wanted smaller joints to be required to provide information on their meals. I see no problem with requiring such information to be readily available at the time of ordering, but at the present it is the fast-food giants who do a better job providing information and I see no reason to give the smaller places a free pass.

  16. I won’t buy a cookbook that doesn’t have minimal information about calories, fat, and fiber as well as serving size. So why should it be different when I go out to eat?

    In truth it’s easier to diet (though probably very healthy) when eating out at a fast food or chain restaurant than a restaurant that doesn’t offer any of the same minimal information.

  17. Dave Ruddell

    I was enjoying a sausage and egg McMuffin on Sunday, and I noticed that the wrapper had a nurtitional panel on it (actually it had the info for the bacon and Canadian bacon versions as well. Damn but is the sausage a lot worse for you!). The info was not on the hash brown though. I took a look at the McDonald’s website, and they’re apparently testing it out. Do note, that this is in Canada, so YMMV south of the border.

  18. Part of the problem that they are trying to address, however, is not the person who is motivated to go online, but rather to disabuse individuals who think what they are eating is healthy. I am really motivated to cut back on calories, but had no idea starbucks drinks were so caloric, and having learned that from the menu produced by a public interest group, I stick to expresso!

  19. Caledonian, I wish it were as easy as that. Very often, information is NOT available, and some restaurant chains make food that is meant to “sound” healthy, but is loaded with fat–for instance, a turkey burger that is 800 calories (at Ruby Tuesday’s). Unless you check beforehand online, you wouldn’t know. Forcing restaurants to make the information easy to find wouldn’t force anybody to change behavior, just make it easier to make informed decisions.

  20. I have no problem with nutritional information being required as long as the regulation is equitable and fair. That means that all establishments that sell food to the public must disclose nutritional information. It is completely unfair to say that chains must do it and others do not have to disclose the information.

    That being said, I, like most people, will ignore the information. I rarely go out to eat. So when I do, I am looking for a good eating experience.

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