Calorie counts are worth a try

Restaurants and other locations will need to make calorie counts and other nutritional information more visible on menus, according to a recent announcement by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The new requirements extend existing rules to other venues where consumers purchase food, including vending machines and movie theaters. The new rules will take effect over the course of the next few years.

The FDA says its rationale for extending calorie counts is that “posting calories … will fill a critical information gap and help consumers make informed and healthful dietary choices.” The effectiveness of calorie counts on menus is currently ambiguous. A Stanford University study indicated that displayed calorie counts on menus reduced people’s consumption of calories in food — but not beverages — by 14 percent. Other studies have found no significant effects.

One major criticism is how expensive these changes will be to implement. Some estimates place costs for labeling and upkeep at nearly $1 billion — costs that would be passed to the customers in the form of higher prices. 

Although long-term research is still needed to determine whether providing calorie counts changes consumer behavior in any meaningful way, we don’t see a downside to making nutritional information available. Furthermore, it seems likely that the labeling costs are overestimated.

A good compromise would be to test this policy in a range of locations to gauge its effectiveness. However, without clear evidence yet, we believe that the benefits of implementing the labels outweigh the potential drawbacks.