New York City's Flawed Calorie-Count Studies

The new health-care law contains an overlooked boost for nutritionists like me: by next year, all national chains with more than 20 locations must offer "clear and conspicuous" calorie information. It's the most important obesity-related public policy since the USDA's food pyramid. But reception to the new mandate has been muted so far, largely because the benefits of New York City's similar 2008 law seem minor: one study found just 15 fewer calories were consumed per meal; another reported it was 30; and a third found that people ate more.

The problem with these studies is that they focus on Starbucks customers and fast-food goers in low-income neighborhoods—patrons who often care about convenience and value above all. They also fail to capture the long-term benefits of calorie counting, namely education and social pressure. Labels will offer case-by-case lessons in exactly what 1,000 calories looks like, and they may even spur restaurants to ease up on sugar and fat. (Denny's, McDonald's, and Cosi, among others, have debuted lighter fare in New York City.) Of course, much depends on the definition of "clear and conspicuous." Still, the country's nutritional literacy is about to improve—making my job a lot easier.

Nestle is a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University.

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