Obesity has become a rampant issue in the United States, and it is one I have commented on during more than one occasion (see here, here, and here). While I don't disagree something should be done to mitigate the issue, I still have to wonder what that something would entail. Some have proposed a tax on unhealthy food and drink, but that wouldn't work so well. The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was originally meant to have mandatory calorie counts for chain restaurants with more than 20 locations, but they have been delayed until December 2016. What about mandating that restaurants post the number of calories contained in each of their dishes?
Johns Hopkins University found that restaurants that have voluntarily put calorie counts on their menus offer more lower calorie items. Although that might sound like a slam dunk for proponents, it goes back to that adage of "you can bring a horse to the water, but you can't make it drink." While the mandatory labeling provides more information to the consumer, it does not automatically change consumer behavior.
The Cato Institute released a study last week showing that mandatory nutrition labeling for restaurants does not have a real effect on obesity (Yelowitz, 2016). Yelowitz used 300,000 respondents from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from 30 large cities between 2003 and 2012, which is significant both for the number of responses and the longitudinal nature of the study. He found that within four years, the negligible effect that existed disappeared completely. Another primary finding was that calorie count was not a huge factor. Those who are calorie conscientious are motivated enough to find the information. Customers mostly care about price, taste, and convenience. A secondary finding was the cost of this mandate. Costs include updating the menus, determining the calorie count of the food (this is more important for restaurants that don't already know the caloric count), potential litigation for incorrect information, longer ordering processes, and the reduced utility of eating a healthier meal.
The Cato Institute isn't the only one to find the ineffectiveness in mandating calorie counts. A 2013 study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Cornell Universities show that posting caloric benchmarks have no direct impact (Downs et al., 2013). The New York University Langone Medical Center has shown that the New York City mandate had no effect on obesity. A literature review from the National Institutes of Health concludes that calorie labeling does not have the desired effect of reducing obesity (Kiszko et al., 2014). One Belgian study found that menu labels for college cafeterias made no difference in meal choices (Hoefkens et al., 2011).
Aside from the fact that restaurants have already started to voluntarily post nutrition information, if customers wanted such information, they would seek it for themselves and demand it from restaurants. It is bad enough that the government is presumptuous to assume what is nutritional for each individual, or that the government forces the view that caloric intake is the only acceptable factor in food consumption. However, to push an idea with evident costs and a lack of research to back up the policy is like shooting fish in a barrel.