Drink this, not that -- Do calorie labels inspire healthy choices?
October 18, 2012
240 calories -- 250 calories -- or 0 calories? Calorie counts on vending machines may soon help consumers choose between a 20 oz. Coca-Cola, Sprite, or water, based on total calories. According to the CDC, 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese, and cities feel pressure to limit consumption of fattening foods and sugary drinks as a public health response.

"Check then choose." That's the motto put forward by the American Beverage Association for its initiative to put calorie labels on vending machines starting in Chicago and San Antonio next year. The Affordable Care Act requires chain restaurants and vending machines to provide calorie counts. Many chain restaurants have already started incorporating nutritional information in their menus. While vending machines are not yet required to feature labels with calorie information, the ABA sought to take a proactive approach, encouraging Chicago and San Antonio to compete for a $5 million grant to start including labels.

Just how effective are calorie labels on menus at encouraging healthier choices? After New York's calorie labeling law took effect in 2008, NYU researchers surveyed more than 800 adults who ate at fast-food restaurants. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said the labels helped them reduce the calories they purchased. But customer receipts showed a different story. Customer behavior didnaEUR(TM)t change: they purchased the same number of calories after the law went into effect as before. Meanwhile, a study at Stanford University showed different results as researchers looked at consumption at Starbucks after mandatory labeling. They found a decrease of 6 percent in calories consumed, though this only accounted for food, not beverage purchases.

These studies suggest that it may still be too soon to measure the full impact (if any) menu labeling has on healthy eating habits. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that Americans get about 33 percent of their daily calories from food consumed away from home, and consumers may be less inclined to make healthier choices when eating out. The theory is that when customers go to McDonald's, they already know most of the foods are high in calories and are more likely to go for taste over calorie count.

Even if calorie labels do not greatly affect consumer preferences when eating out, they can still affect consumption. For example, when mandatory trans-fat labeling went into effect, the number of products claiming "no trans-fat" increased from 64 in 2003 to 733 in 2007,a year after the law took effect. This labeling then benefited consumers by making more choices available that had no trans-fat. Recently, both Nestle and General Mills issued a plan to reformulate 5.3 billion portions of cereal sold (outside the U.S.) each year by cutting 24% of sugar and 12% of salt in 20 brands of cereal. A continued increase of reformulated products with fewer calories and less sugar is a step in the right direction for more options available to consumers.

The USDA points out that the impact of calorie labeling on making healthy choices may also depend on how the choices are grouped together. For example, if extremely high-calorie items are mixed on the menu with low-calorie options, consumers may be more likely to opt for a more "moderate" option even if that option still isn't healthy. The case for soda is a little different as many 20 oz. sodas dispensed from a vending machine are around the same calorie count, with the exception of diet sodas. If diet sodas, lower-calorie sports drinks, and water are grouped in the same vending machine, it could be easier for consumers to choose between a lower calorie and higher calorie vending machine.

According to Beverage Digest, soda sales have been declining in recent years, suggesting the need for soda companies to respond to increasing health consciousness among consumers. However, labeling alone may not be enough to stave off regulation, as a majority of states already have soda taxes in place. Instead, as the soda market shifts to a larger share of diet soda brands, beverage companies may need to move towards smaller portion sizes in vending machines, as well as increase the share of diet brands to appeal to more health conscious consumers.

0 calories -- 0 calories -- or 0 calories? Pressure on beverage companies to provide more options for health conscious consumers could open the door for such labels. The choice will be yours.


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