Will calorie counts change the way we dine? Economic sociology takes a peek at nutritional transparency
Among the many provisions in the loved and decried Health Care bill ("Obamacare to its detractors) passed by congress last year is one that requires restaurants with more than 20 stores to provide calorie information printed on their menus for all regular menu items. Although these regulations nominally took effect in March of 2010, the Food and Drug Administration is still working out guidelines to help the restaurant industry comply, and so far there are no reports of heavy enforcement.
At the crux of the idea is the belief that providing consumers with more information will help them make "better" choices. As someone who studies consumers professionally, I believe there are several interesting factors at play here that may mean this provision has rippling unintended consequences in some areas, while failing to have the expected impact in others.
First, it is now broadly recognized that the only people who consistently act perfectly rationally in response to incentives are economists and the students they train. The rest of us are too busy balancing multiple different concerns and values and therefore respond in a much more "muddy" way to changes in incentives. Consumers not trained in the ways of behaving "rationally" often exhibit any number of biases, such as possession bias (where we prefer something we already have, even if it was randomly chosen for us) and present bias (where we treat ourselves well in the short term and don't correctly estimate how much we are not going to like paying for it in the long run).
Any number of these biases in the way ordinary consumers make choices, particularly the two I mention, can impact how we make choices about food. Even when confronted with the real caloric "cost" of our meal, we may prefer items that are familiar to us over new items that pose the risk that we may not like them when we try them. We may then exhibit present bias and rationalize this choice to ourselves by promising that we will go to the gym tonight after work, or that we will only have a salad for dinner...though when that future time becomes the present, we find ourselves strongly inclined to eat pizza while we watch tv. These sorts of behaviors will likely reduce the estimated health impact of the new measures.
Panera is one national chain that has had calorie counts prominently displayed on their overhead menus for several months now. They are very forward with nutritional information on their webpage as well, including a meal planner with detailed nutritional information. I think Panera should be strongly commended for being a first-mover for nutritional transparency. I for one appreciate (though "enjoy" may be too strong a word) knowing the real caloric cost of my meal, so I have been supporting Panera with my lunch money more often lately. And it also makes them an interesting early test case for the effects of the new regulations.
As I went through the process of selecting my lunch at Panera, I tried to be observant about how the information was impacting my choices. My first instinct was to rove my eyes over the handful of menu options that are my stand-by favorites, as usual. There's that chicken salad I like, or the tasty roast beef sandwich...hmm but I also really like a Mediterranean or Chinese chicken salad. What's a girl to do?
I was, in effect, still searching or browsing the menu based on my established pattern of preferences. This established habit is reinforced by how the restaurant presents its menu: the menu is still categorized based on the food type, not sorted or ranked by calories. Familiar favorites are in their remembered position, while the new calorie information appears on the side. The layout of the information still encourages customers to primarily sort options based on taste and type, not calories.
However, I noticed that where I was undecided among my favorites, the calorie differential was a useful tool for tipping my decision in one direction or another. Undecided between two salads I usually enjoy, I easily chose the salad with fewer calories. If I am any example, it seems there is room for the regulations to make moderate and incremental improvements in the calories consumed, but perhaps not a radical shift in the array of choices that average consumers consider.
There is another concept in economic sociology that makes an interesting metaphor: reserve wages. Essentially, surveys ask unemployed people what hourly wage they would have to be offered before they would consider taking a job. Many people list wages that are at or below the national minimum wage, suggesting that they are not self-selecting out of the employment pool. But a large number of people also list wages of ten, twelve, fifteen dollars an hour or higher. The basic idea is that there is a cognitive threshold that affects people's choices: on one side of the threshold we are willing to act, and on the other side we won't.
I suspect a great number of people also have a reserve calorie threshold. For some people it may be so high that it never comes into play, but I suspect most people have some level where they draw that line in the sand and say "It just ain't worth it."
Scanning the Panera bakery treats, I realized that my reserve calorie level was somewhere between 200 and 300 calories for a treat. Even with a lengthy self deception talk about how much I deserved a treat and how I would go to the gym later, I found I just could not bring myself to eat a single cookie with more than 300 calories in it, let alone a cinnamon chip scone for a whopping 600 calories. And to my surprise, my favorite cookie (the chocolate duet with walnuts) had 450 calories, with more than half the calories coming from fat. Whereas previously I might have casually added a chocolate cookie to my lunch meal as a treat to split with my husband, those numbers stopped me cold. I scanned the entire bakery and realized with a bit of sadness that none of those treats were worth it to me.
I asked the bakery worker if he had noticed any change in sales since the calorie numbers were displayed and he said he hadn't. They still seemed to be selling just as many things, and roughly the same amount of each item. That suggests that most people, even in the face of signs with several hundred calories on them, are neither shifting choices to the somewhat healthier treats, nor foregoing treats entirely.
One alternative future after the regulations are broadly in effect is that consumers shift choices within a menu (as I did), or begin to prefer one store over another, because they sufficiently incorporate concerns about calories into their overall evaluation for what food they prefer to eat right now for lunch. This could stimulate both a shake up of the long stable hierarchy of fast food and restaurant industries, but could also stimulate menu innovations within chains to bring more fresh and healthful food to American consumers.
But another alternative future is something that roughly parallels the impact of having detailed nutritional labels on the foods we can purchase in grocery stores. That is to say that some people will make some changes as a result, but that a great many people will behave roughly like my husband: oblivious. He picks out six cans of soup to take with him for lunches at work and I find one cream of corn soup that has more than 40 grams of fat per serving, and 2 servings in the can. I ask if he looked at the nutritional information and he said it hadn't occurred to him.
Its even worse when he shops for things that seem healthful, like the crunchy sesame bits he bought at Trader Joes last week. He tells me he thinks they would be good on a salad, and the sesame bits have a sort of rugged vegan look to them that implies healthfulness. Turns out that from a calorie and fat perspective, you would pretty much be better off eating a snickers on your salad.
The sociologist in me is incredibly curious: Where do you fall? Have you been to a restaurant with displayed information and made a different choice as a result? Have you developed a sense of your own reserve calorie threshold? Are you looking forward to or dreading the implementation of calorie transparency on menus?