Does calorie labeling work?

I am generally skeptical of broad, top-down approaches to improve health. For instance, soda taxes are one example.  While soda is clearly not got for you, should unhealthy drinks like Red Bull be taxed?  Why single out soda?  What about cheesecake?  Thus, these efforts–while well intentioned–can seem arbitrary and paternalistic.

On the other hand, posting calorie counts I would regard as somewhat different. While there are clear costs to businesses, providing information to consumers and allowing consumers to make their own decisions seems like a more reasonable approach.  The question is whether the cost of the regulation outweight the benefits…and more specifically, whether there are any benenfits.  Specifically, does posting calories lead to reduction in body mass index (BMI)?

That is exactly the question that Restrepo (2017) attempts to answer using data from New York City.   They find that:

…the point-of-purchase provision of calorie information on chain restaurant menus reduced body mass index (BMI) by 1.5% and lowered the risk of obesity by 12%. Quantile regression results indicate that calorie labeling has similar impacts across the BMI distribution. An analysis of heterogeneity suggests that calorie labeling has a larger impact on the body weight of lower income individuals, especially lower income minorities. The estimated impacts of calorie labeling on physical activity, smoking, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages, fruits, and vegetables are small in magnitude, which suggests that other margins of adjustment drive the body-weight impacts estimated here.

A very interesting piece of evidence that will be useful for this debate on whether to extend the calorie information more broadly.


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