Will mandatory calorie labeling change food behavior?

Heads up! The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently finalized two rulings, effective December 1, 2015, regarding calorie and nutrition labeling for food items sold in vending machines and restaurants.

Food Labeling; Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines*:

 “The declaration of accurate and clear calorie information for food sold from vending machines will make calorie information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.”

 Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail

Food Establishments*:

Providing accurate, clear, and consistent nutrition information, including the calorie content of foods, in restaurants and similar retail food establishments will make such nutrition information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.”

Photo by Flickr user Steve W

Typical American vending machine circa 2006

Although long overdue and incredibly welcome, the statute as written implies that information is not just necessary but a sufficient means of healthier eating. The information enables the consumer to make decisions with the optimism that knowledge will be the impetus to a healthier lifestyle. The FDA is right that knowledge and information are essential to healthier eating, but assuming that consumers will make informed and healthful dietary choices simply because the options are there is wishful thinking. People know the “right” thing to do or eat a lot of the time, but simply knowing doesn’t translate into doing—intention is also an important element, among other factors like perceived control over behavior and past behavior1.

I’m not criticizing the FDA for not doing more nor am I dismissing the effort put forth by health advocates who worked for these rulings for decades. These mandates represent progress, but they are not sufficient. Labeling and providing calorie totals is hardly enough to curb calorie intake. In a 2009 study that looked at fast-food choices of people** in New York after the introduction of a menu-labeling mandate, researchers found no difference in calories purchased compared to a control group in a city where no menu-labeling mandate existed. This finding was despite the fact that nearly 30% of participants indicated that the calorie labels influenced their decisions2. Awareness doesn’t automatically translate into action.

In fact, sometimes knowing the healthiest option on the menu is enough to make someone choose the least healthy option. Though the decision seems counterintuitive, the behavior exists, and it’s called vicarious goal fulfillment3. Basically, what that means is that people see the salad item on the menu and its calorie total, and it reminds them of the salad they had last week or the one that they promise they’ll eat tomorrow. Feeling justified, people can then order the bacon cheeseburger. It sounds completely counter-intuitive, but the evidence exists.

Let’s take a look at some of the other factors at play when making food decisions in addition to calorie information:

Living with the rule of thumb “everything in moderation:” We all know this mantra. Nutritionists and laypeople alike have endorsed it as an effective means of weight management, but the amount that constitutes moderation is ambiguous, which allows people to interpret it as they see fit. Does moderation mean eating a single cookie or just one sleeve of cookies in a package? For most people, moderation depends on the amount they typically eat. People tend to interpret information in a self-serving way, so those who do eat an entire sleeve of cookies may genuinely believe the amount is moderate, particularly if the alternative is to eat the entire package. In fact, research I collaborated on found that people considered moderation to be slightly more than what they typically ate4. In other words, everyone thought that they ate in moderation, but the definition of moderation varied dramatically by person.

These findings suggest that visible calorie or nutrition information won’t necessarily alter the food people choose when ordering or at a vending machine. Instead, people are more likely to order the same food and then shift their definition of moderation to match what they ate.

Eating with others: An abundance of evidence finds that eating with other people influences everything from what we eat to how much5. Generally, people eat more when they eat with other people unless the others are strangers6. When eating companions are unknown or merely acquaintances, people are much more likely to limit how much they eat so as not to seem sloppy or greedy or any of the other labels that are placed on people who eat “a lot.” Think about a first date you had that involved dinner. What did you order? Did you decide not to order something in particular because of what it might signify to your date? Did you eat more carefully than usual? Maybe you ate less than you usually do. Eating with people you do know may impose a separate set of social pressures to keep up with the group, whether that means ordering dessert for everyone to split or getting a salad with the dressing on the side so you aren’t the odd person out.

Even the gender and appearance of people who are around us in our eating environment can influence the food we choose7. For example, people who order food after a thin person who has ordered a lot of food are more likely to increase the amount they eat, too. The reasoning seems to be that if it’s okay for a thin person to eat that much, then I can, too.  Much of this behavior doesn’t occur at the level of conscious awareness; rather, it’s a quick decision we make automatically without necessarily realizing the aspects that factored into it.

I should note that, although these trends apply across all genders in the United States (where the majority of the research reported here has been conducted), social norms differ for men and women regarding how they should eat. Whereas men may feel pressured to eat more meat to be masculine, women may feel that they must eat less or something “light” so they don’t seem too unfeminine8.

Does this salad make me look feminine?

Does this salad make me look feminine?

All of these factors that you may or may not have been aware of influence your eating patterns,  often above and beyond objective information like calorie labels. In other words, your eating  companions are much more likely to influence your decision on their own or in combination  with the calorie information than the calorie info by itself.

For more information on how eating with others is different from eating alone, keep an eye out  for our upcoming mini-series on social eating.

 Licensing: That feeling of deservingness you have when you worked your butt off earlier in  the day or decided not to have dessert after lunch, for example, that makes you feel entitled to a treat. In simplest terms, licensing is self-justified indulging of (often unhealthy) foods for a variety of reasons, including feeling that you deserve it, availability of the food, intentions to make up for the indulgence later, curiosity about the food, feeling that it’s an exception to what you usually eat, and irresistibility of the food9. See our Justifying Indulgence on Thanksgiving post for more details. In a licensing situation, calorie information is likely to be less important than if someone had not previously decided to indulge.

Another possibility in a licensing situation with visible nutrition information is that the food item that people plan to indulge in may not contain as many calories as people expected, which may lead them to order additional calories at that time or later that day. Maybe you weren’t planning to order fries with your burger, but now that you know the burger only has 300 calories, all bets are off.


These are just a few of the factors at play when people make decisions about what and how much to eat. Most of these influences will occur regardless of whether calorie or nutrition information is available. Furthermore, the very people who may be put off by the calorie amounts likely weren’t eating much of that food anyway. At the other extreme is the group of people who will eat whatever they want, regardless of the calorie amounts. A middle group of consumers exists, however, that we haven’t yet discussed. That group is composed of people who generally try to watch what they eat but can’t be bothered too much by it. And this middle group might be bigger than the other two. Maybe it’s the category you fall into. That group may make food decisions for other groups that wouldn’t change their patterns, like a mother or father deciding for a child. That middle group might also be people who have the intention to eat better, but McDonald’s is the only restaurant in their town. For this middle group, visible calorie and nutrition information may start to speak louder than the other factors. Visible calorie and nutrition information may eventually make its way into people’s working knowledge of nutrition, and knowledge is an initial necessary step to intentional behavior change.

Read more about the statutes here. If you’re interested in many of the other aspects of food decisions, check out Brian Wansink’s work here.

* Only vendors and companies operating at least 20 vending machines/stores are required to follow this new mandate.

** This study focused on low-income people, who may have the additional goal beyond health of getting the most calories for the least amount of money. Unfortunately, these two goals are often at odds with each other.

1 Ajzen. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

2 Elbel, Kersh, Brescoll, & Dixon. (2009). Calorie labeling and food choices: A first look at the effects on low-income people in New York City. Health Affairs.

3 Wilcox, Vallen, Block, & Fitzsimons. (2009). Vicarious goal fulfillment: When the mere presence of a healthy option leads to an ironically indulgent decision. Journal of Consumer Research.

4 vanDellen, Isherwood, & Delose. (2014). Everything in moderation? Moderation messages are ineffective for healthy eating. Unpublished manuscript.

5,6 Herman, Roth, & Polivy. (2003). Effects of the presence of others on food intake: A normative interpretation. Psychological Bulletin.

7 McFerran, Dahl, Fitzsimons, & Morales. (2010). I’ll have what she’s having: Effects of social influence and body type on the food choice of others. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

8 Bublitz, Peracchio, & Block. (2010). Why did I eat that? Perspectives on food decision making and dietary restraint. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

9 Taylor, Webb, & Sheeran. (2013). ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action. British Journal of Social Psychology.