Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese plus calorie count on a sesame seed bun.

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Calories, We Never Knew You

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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The airwaves are alive with Thanksgiving and Christmas calorie stories.

Makes sense. But are those pecan pie dissections really all that relevant? After all, holidays come around once a year. What's more important is what you take in on normal days. 

A quick quiz: How many calories in a bagel? 250. A blueberry muffin? More than 300. A big Mac? 550. A cup of peanuts? 828.

People are often surprised by numbers of this kind. Most Americans have no idea how many calories are in their foods and drinks, studies show. But that’s about to change.

A new rule from the Food and Drug Administration will require calorie and other nutrition information to be disclosed by chain restaurants -- including bakeries, cafeterias, coffee shops, convenience stores, movie theaters and vending machines. The rule might turn out to be one of the most important regulatory initiatives of the past decade, with a significant effect on consumer behavior and public health. (Note that, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the first term of the Barack Obama administration, I worked on an early version of this rule.)

The disclosure requirement comes from a provision of the Affordable Care Act that has drawn strong support from public health organizations. The motivating idea is that consumers should be free to make their own choices -- but that those choices should be informed ones. Most restaurants have little incentive to disclose calorie information on their own. The new FDA rule is meant to force such disclosure, and then to rely on the operation of the free market.

The FDA hopes that once consumers see calorie counts, they will make healthier choices, and there is evidence to support the agency’s optimism. A 2010 study by Bryan Bollinger of Stanford University and his colleagues found that at Starbucks, mandatory calorie posting significantly influenced food selections, and led customers to reduce their average calories per food purchase by 14 percent.

Consumers bought fewer items, and they also substituted lower-calorie choices. Importantly, the largest effects were found among people who previously had bought the highest-calorie meals. Moreover, the effects persisted for 10 months.

A number of other studies have similarly found that calorie information leads people to reduce their calorie intake. Recent research has found this effect, for example, on the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in low-income neighborhoods in Maryland.

The evidence is far from unequivocal, however. Some studies find little or no effect. Others find that disclosure of such information can actually increase calorie consumption, especially in low-income areas. One possible explanation is that for some consumers, more seems better. If you don’t have much money, you might think that high-calorie items offer a bigger bang for the buck. We are continuing to learn more about the effects of disclosure requirements, and as the FDA’s rule takes effect, expect some surprises.

But here’s the most intriguing research finding so far: Sometimes disclosure requirements affect providers more than consumers, prodding them to change their offerings. As a result of the FDA’s rule, many restaurants, cafeterias, convenience stores, movie theaters, vending machines and so on will offer healthier foods -- at least as long as their customers want to buy them.

When people eat high-calorie foods, it is often because they have no idea how fattening they are, or because they do not pay attention to that characteristic. The FDA’s rule will increase information and sharpen people's focus. With respect to public health, it could turn out to be a game-changer.

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:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net