Do nutrition labels really work?

Do nutrition labels really work?
A meal is seen at a restaurant in Foxboro, Massachusetts July 30, 2014. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter (UNITED STATES – Tags: FOOD SOCIETY HEALTH)

When you walk into a McDonald’s pretty much anywhere in the world, you’ll typically see three different things for each item on the menu – the name, the price and the nutrition label, which tells you how many calories that item (or combo) has.

This stems from American law trying to help tackle obesity in the States. The intention was that if people could see the calorie count of the things they were eating, they might choose healthier options. Similar legislation has since passed in the UK and other countries, and calorie counts are becoming a more common addition to global menus.

But do they actually work?

The US passed legislation requiring nutrition labels for food served in restaurants with more than 20 stores in 2018. However, research shows that the addition of nutrition labels hasn’t dramatically changed what people order, although it has affected new menu items restaurants are choosing to serve.

Some people say they appreciate the additional information provided by nutrition labels when dining out and that it can help them balance their overall daily diet. But, obesity campaigners say that these kinds of regulations don’t have the intended effect and can cause more harm than good.

One reason the naysayers point out is that calories don’t necessarily equate to food being good or bad – a chocolate bar might have just as many calories as a bowl of chicken and rice, but they don’t have the same nutritional value.

“We need to really understand how people are going to engage with this," said Stuart Flint, an associate professor of the psychology of obesity at Leeds University in the UK. “Is it going to mean that people only look at calories? A chocolate bar is less than a balanced meal, but we don’t want people to be having a chocolate bar and skipping the meal. It’s not always about reducing the amount we eat."

Another issue is that calorie counts might encourage people to swap out what they really want from a restaurant for something they don’t want as much, which can increase cravings and lead to binge eating later.

A study of more than 5,500 people between 2015-2017 showed that diners who received menus with calorie counts ordered, on average, about 45 fewer calories – only a 3% difference.

“So with a 3 percent reduction in calories, this isn’t in and of itself a silver bullet that’s going to solve the obesity epidemic," said study author John Cawley, a professor of public policy at Cornell University. “But it’s also a very cheap intervention, and it’s a simple thing that we can do."