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A simple tweak makes calorie labeling more effective

- April 25, 2014
An employee prepares a Chipotle Mexican Grill burrito. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

This is a guest post by Peter Ubel, a professor of business, public policy and medicine at Duke University, and Peggy Liu, a doctoral student in marketing at Duke.

As if the Affordable Care Act wasn’t controversial enough, a lesser-known provision of the law has critics warning of regulatory zeal. Section 4205  of the ACA (in case you haven’t read that far) requires restaurants to post calorie counts for the meals they sell, a requirement critics claim will be costly to comply with, while being of little benefit to consumers who will not know how to use this information.
Critics are especially concerned about the law’s requirement that restaurants post calorie ranges for foods that are customizable – foods like pizza and burritos, where the number of calories varies depending on the ingredients. A large cheese pizza, for instance, has far fewer calories than a large sausage, pepperoni and onion pizza with, of course, extra cheese. Two U.S. congresswomen, Cathy Rogers and Loretta Sanchez, contend that the “ranges can be so wide – conceivably as much as 2,000 calories in the case of a pizza – that they are useless in providing consumers with useful information.”
Fortunately, the FDA has not published final rules on menu labeling yet. So it has time to address critics’ concerns. Our new research has identified a simple tweak that the FDA should consider, one that makes it far easier for consumers to understand calorie ranges.
Our research team stood outside a Chipotle restaurant in Durham, N.C., and asked customers to guess how many calories were in their lunchtime burritos.  We also asked people what ingredients they had chosen to include in their burrito, which we used to calculate the accuracy of their estimates. We discovered that they significantly underestimated the caloric content of their lunch. They guessed that their burritos were only 630 calories, on average, when the truth was closer to 900.
In a second group of lunch-goers, we provided range information on the number of calories in a Chipotle burrito (“from 410 to 1,185 calories”) before asking them to guess the number of calories in their own burrito. When provided with this information, people still underestimated the number of calories they had just consumed, but by less this time — guessing more than 750 calories when the truth was still around 900.
Why did people still underestimate how many calories were in their burrito, even when they received calorie range information?  Because people did not know what the low end of this calorie range represented. Many assumed a 410-calorie burrito included a healthy portion of all the healthiest ingredients — a dollop of salsa, a scoop of rice, some chicken and a layer of veggies. But Chipotle’s 410-calorie burrito, according to the restaurant’s Web site at the time we ran the study, represents the caloric content of a burrito consisting of nothing but beans and a tortilla.
It turns out that restaurants have a lot of leeway in deciding what the low end of the calorie range represents. Some, like Chipotle and Domino’s Pizza, appear to treat it as the bare minimum content —  beans and a tortilla or a plain cheese pizza. Others, like Subway, appear to treat it as an item with all the healthiest ingredients — a sub with some meat and all of the healthy veggies on top.
Which brings us to the simple informational tweak. The FDA should require restaurants to provide consumers not only with calorie range information, but also with a brief description of what ingredients are included at the end points of the range. Take a look at the two pictures below. The first provides calorie range information, but the second explains this information.
When we provided people in our study with this additional information, their calorie estimates were significantly more accurate.
Critics of calorie-count regulations are correct to point out that we cannot justify the costs of such requirements if the mandated information does not improve consumer understanding. The FDA should require restaurants to define the endpoints of calorie ranges. Consumers deserve comprehensible information about their food choices.