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.