The fault lies not in our labels...

Better Food Labels Won't Make You Less Fat

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Do we need better food labels? That's the argument of public health experts interviewed by food and health writer Jane Brody. It's too hard, they say, to tell exactly what you're eating all the time, which contributes to the nation's rising tide of obesity.

Color me skeptical. I hate to be that contrarian who takes a stand against everything, even unobjectionable policies like food labels, except I guess I already did. It's not that I'm against transparency, per se. But I'm against the notion that more transparency is always and everywhere better, and provides tangible benefits to society. Sometimes transparency can actually cause problems.

Take, well, food labeling. A while back, people got the idea that putting calorie counts on menus would help fight obesity. So we did, in some areas, and compared what happened there with what happened in places where food labeling wasn't required. The results ranged between nothing and negative, which is to say, people ate slightly more calories after the new menus went up.

When this failed, researchers naturally suggested that the problem wasn't labeling, per se -- it was that we hadn't gotten the right labels. Perhaps if we offered labels that translated calories into the number of minutes you'd need to walk those calories off, people would order more sparsely. Perhaps. The study is thinly described, and I can't even tell if they were actually ordering food, or just choosing what they would eat, if they were in a restaurant. But perhaps people would order differently if they were actually in a restaurant, rather than a university research group. Or perhaps people would compensate by eating more later. In general, the research showing substantial benefits from calorie labeling seems to be largely absent; the main argument for it is "Couldn't hurt."

And the proposed food labels don't seem outrageous: They want more information on added sugars and other finely grained distinctions that are lost on the current standard label. But there are dangers. For one thing, providing too much information can mean that people don't read any of it, as anyone who has ever gotten a mortgage can attest. Each piece of paper you have to initial or sign was added by some well-meaning person who was concerned that consumers weren't getting enough information about their loans. But when faced with an overwhelming stack, people tend to just race through without looking at what they're signing. If the disclosures were a page or two, it would be more likely that they'd be read.

Then there are the costs to business of revising the labels, and to small producers of having to develop them. Food labels provide good information, but the way they do so is to relentlessly standardize, selecting in favor of big companies with heavy machine processing and lots of money for regulatory compliance. Those are the companies that produce all the food that the label brigade is trying to get us to cut back on in favor of less exquisitely processed alternatives.

Of course, I love calorie labels; I check them every time. But giving me more information about added sugar is probably not going to affect the obesity epidemic one way or another.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net