Calorie Posting and Its Impact

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Researchers find that posting calories in restaurants decreases calories per purchase.

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According to a study published earlier this year in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, mandatory calorie posting in New York City Starbucks stores caused customers to decrease their average calorie intake per transaction by 6%.

Researchers Bryan Bollinger, Phillip Leslie, and Alan Sorenson, the authors of “Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants,” hypothesized that widespread exposure to caloric information would cause Americans to become more aware of and more focused on their caloric intake and, as a result, that they would purchase fewer high-calorie food products.

In recent years, policymakers in several major cities have implicitly made the same hypothesis as they have adopted requirements for calorie posting in restaurants as a response to an obesity “epidemic” in the United States. The new federal health care reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will also start requiring chain restaurants across the country to include nutrition labels on their menus

Do such calorie disclosure laws work? Using data from Starbucks restaurants in New York City both before and after the city passed a law in 2008 requiring chain restaurants to post calorie amounts on menus, Bollinger, Leslie and Sorenson compared caloric intake data from the New York locations with “control” Starbucks stores in Boston and Philadelphia, where calorie posting was not required.

They found that with calorie posting in effect Starbucks customers’ average caloric intake per food transaction decreased by 14%, while their average caloric intake per beverage transaction did not change. Of the reduced calories, 74% resulted from fewer purchases, while 26% stemmed from purchasing lower calorie products.

Although the average calorie intake decreased overall by only 6% at Starbucks stores, the study suggests that the disclosure law may have affected most those consumers who frequently made high-calorie purchases before the calorie information. For example, consumers who averaged more than 250 calories per transaction before the NYC law took effect decreased their calories per transaction by 26% after the information was posted.

The study’s authors also report that Starbucks experienced no discernible loss in revenue following the adoption of calorie posting.