A Great Opportunity for Obesity Researchers

I walked into a Starbucks in Manhattan the other day and noticed that the food in the glass display case now lists three key facts: the name of the item, the price, and the calories. This last fact is new. It is the result of a recent New York City regulation that requires chain restaurants — those with 15 or more outlets in the city — to list caloric information.

Starbucks had a nice-looking (and huge!) apple fritter in the glass case that went for 490 calories. A slice of pound cake was just a bit less; I think the bagel cost 220 calories. When I asked the clerk about the new calorie info, she told me the signs had just gone up a few days earlier. I asked if she’d seen any changes. She wasn’t sure, she said, but she thought there was a bit less demand on the high-calorie items. A few days later, the Times published an article on the subject.

It struck me that this new regulation presents a great opportunity for obesity researchers. If you could get good data, I’m guessing we could learn a lot about how a posted calorie count affects eating behavior, with all sorts of wrinkles:

+ How calorie-sensitive are people in general, and are they more so during different times of day, days of the week, or types of days (holiday vs. workday, bad weather vs. good, etc.)?

+ If a posted calorie count does shock people into buying/eating differently, how long does that shock last?

+ There’s also a lot of experimentation to be done, including: altering the size of the calorie count on the signs and/or perhaps using different icons (smiley faces?) to differentiate between high-, medium-, and low-calorie foods. You could, of course, also experiment with using images like an obese person vs. a skinny person, or perhaps just a blob of fake fat to represent high-cal., but since we are talking about companies that sell food, I doubt they’d be interested. Maybe Brian Wansink would be, however.

It would also be interesting to see how calorie signs affect demand for lower-calorie foods. While on the surface, the New York City regulation might seem like bad news for restaurants, I could imagine it turning out to be good news if it stokes such demand.

Imagine that Starbucks figures out that most customers don’t want to buy any single piece of food that has more than 250 calories. No one is buying that delicious 490-calorie apple fritter any more (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll say costs $3). What if Starbucks cuts the portion size by 50 percent but sells the new fritter for 80 percent of the original price — i.e., a 245-cal. fritter for $2.40.

That means Starbucks is taking in $4.80 for every 500 calories of apple fritter it sells, versus just $3 in the old days. You might think that $2.40 is a lot for a half-size fritter — but if people turn out to be more calorie-sensitive than they are price-sensitive, Starbucks and a lot of other restaurants may be end up celebrating the day that New York City tried to rein them in.


Please leave those apple fritters alone! They are delicious! I don't care if I go to the fat farm! DO NOT MAKE THEM SMALLER, I BEG YOU!


This is a great new law. I have yet to read a study showing that more information (if fairly presented and relatively unbiased) has harmed individuals. I am knowledgeable about nutrition and I like to stay healthy and fit, but it was just easier to rationalize a choice of the fritter (which is delicious even if way too big) without the calories posted. But don't forget the shame factor. If I'm ordering from the internet I might still ignore the calories. Next time I'm in the mood for a caloric "splurge" with my plain old coffee, I'll be even more convinced that the cute gal behind me is rolling her eyes and thinking "seriously? the fritter?" After all, as one reader noted, peer pressure alone keeps a lot of New Yorkers in shape, and these signs heighten the pressure.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to stop reading this thread or I'm going to have to run and get that fritter... mmmmm...wonder if I can order from the web...



I'd pay a reasonable per-calorie premium to have a moderately sized dessert instead of a huge one, or to put it differently, I'd forgo the bulk discount. Some places just don't offer small dessert portions. I don't want to (and probably couldn't) finish the dessert on the menu so if I'm not sharing with someone I don't order any dessert at all. Maybe they would come out ahead giving the option of $3.50 cheesecake slices instead of $6 slabs twice the size. Some people might order who otherwise wouldn't, and some pairs might order two portions instead of sharing one.


I think this is a good idea, and I think it won't do much to cause people to eat fewer calories.

What it will do is allow people who are trying to eat fewer calories to do it more easily. Some percentage of overweight people have difficulty judging how much food is appropriate (I'm one of them). Giving me the tools to judge, rather than estimate, the number of calories I'm eating gives me a much better chance of sticking to a healthy number at a particular sitting. That's where the public health benefit will be realized. It's not as sexy as shocking a fat guy thin, but what is, really?

Mei Than

Alex posed an interesting question:

"To what degree, if at all, do reduced portion sizes at the same price lead to diminished sales?"

a number of factors come into play. some people are more willing to pay for more and shop at costco. others want quality and shop at whole foods.

It might also be the case that if all chain stores were to reduce their portions, then people may being to not care, and sales will stop diminishing, if it were to start diminishing at all.

+ If a posted calorie count does shock people into buying/eating differently, how long does that shock last?

(I don't suppose for very long...I don't think it'll last for more than a second. For me, tastes of the food and friend's opinions about the food is what counts)

+ It would also be interesting to see how calorie signs affect demand for lower-calorie foods.

(this is a little narrow minded. i honestly think that the relationship, if there is one at all, is negligible. people eat what tastes good to them. assuming everyone is calorie conscious is faulty. )


C Liss

The marginal cost for Starbucks of half an apple fritter is probably very little, so they wouldn't profit more by charging $2.40 for half of the $3 fritter. Also, people need to get their calories from somewhere, so I don't think they'll end up thinner just from staying away from the fritter. The key is healthful whole foods, not calories anyway - better to get your fat and calories from an avocado or hardboiled egg than a sugary fritter.

Hans B

Question is, when someone limits him/herself for five minutes, does he/she compensate afterwards?

I ask this question because my (former) mother-in-law once stopped sugaring her coffee in order to lose weight. Then, after the twice-daily cup of sugarless coffee, she'd rub her chubby hands and say gleefully, "And now I deserve an ice-cream!" And she'd eat one, too.


Tax calories? Why stop there?
Why not just shoot people who order high calorie laden snacks and drinks. Execute them, right on the spot.
Before long, the obesity epidemic will subside.

Hey, it's for the good of society, right?


Many people on here have commented that in general if people knew how many calories there are in foods, they'd choose the less calorie snack every time.

Am surprised that no one said the opposite! I mean, if it were me, I'd choose the higher calorie food!! Then at least you're getting more calories for your money! [Then I'd just cut back on my calories the rest of the day..]

Incidentally I do this calculation in my head at the grocery store every time I go (calories/dollar, I mean) -- mostly with processed foods. Ie - I'll buy the meal that gives me more calories for my money every time [within certain nutrient constraints] since I know in general how many calories I need to eat a day..

Am surprised other people don't think like this?


A diet of salted whole-grain gruel doesn't make you live longer, it just feels like it.

Seriously, I like the idea of posting the number of jumping jacks it would take to burn off each snack.


yunno, i equate every junk/unnecessary food or drink item i eat with miles ran on the treadmill... 300 calorie candy bar? that's 2 miles to me... it sounds silly, but this way of thinking was instrumental in helping me go from 204lb to 165lb...

J. Pablo

Your observation is very interesting. We, who do not live in the States, refrain from ordering some dishes due to the amount of food they contain. We are more conscious on the size of the plate than on the price. Have you observed the size of a small glass of Coke in McDonald's?

Albert Lewis

I'm forever quoting Sebastian Cabot, the jolly actor and gourmand, as having said he'd rather die a little earlier of eating rich, delicious foods than with the taste of wheat germ on his palate. Vita brevis, bonus victus longa.

Nobody gets out of this alive, in any case, so a good-looking corpse is completely beside the point.

J Trapnell

I have always thought when Costco first opened that there would be a link between body health and ability to purchase bulk/quantity. My untested hypothesis; take a variety of body tests, weight, blood sugar, Cholestoral at the begining of the year one membership. At 12 and 24 months take the same readings. That argument was that buying in bulk also meant eating in bulk.

Paul Clapham

A couple of months ago my wife and I had lunch in a Subway store. They obsessively told us the calorie content of each of their sandwiches. (Neither of us cared.) But they tried to up-sell us to 20-ounce drinks and didn't tell us how many calories were in them.


-Joe L.

The key words in my previous post (#20) are 'long term'. It has been shown that any drastic change in diet will initially cause weight loss. Whether or not that weight loss is maintained is what is important. When it comes to reducing diets, the weight can only be kept off with great pains unless the diet is low in carbohydrates.


The first day our local Starbucks posted the calorie information all the lower-calorie treats were sold out. Who knew that their Feta-Egg wrap had fewer calories than a plain bagel? I'm loving this law already!

But please don't dumb it down with smiley faces or blobs of fat. Part of the problem in trying to make healthy food choices is the interpretation of the facts. Zero trans-fats does not make an item fat-free. Fat-free does not make and item calorie-free. and so on, and so on.

I would like to see the facts, and only the facts, on labels -- no spin, please -- no matter how evil that apple fritter now appears.


I think it's great that Starbucks is posting the nutritional information of their food. I am quite aware that Starbucks' bakery products are not diet-friendly, however in a rush or on vacation, sometimes it is my only option. Now I can at least make the smartest choice of what is in front of me!

just curious

Do these restaurants also have to provide caloric values for the beverages they offer? What happens when someone wants a decaf mocha reduced fat soy latte? Can a customer request the caloric value of any orderable item?


But the cost to Starbuck is not measured in calories or even in ingredients.

The labor to sells the fritter is exactly the same. The labor to put it out on display is the exactly the same. The cost of promoting the fritter is the same.

Where does Starbucks save money on selling a smaller fritter? Yes, ingredients, but that's pennies. Transportation? Is there much savings there?

Keep in mind that fast food joints are happy to sell a MUCH larger soda for just a few cents more because the marginal cost of increasing the size of the soda is so low. I have no question that fitter ingredients are more expensive than soda ingredients, but I'd be shocked that it would be enough to make this worth a money maker for Starbucks.

So, with that in mind, some alternative interesting questions:

* If companies create smaller servings for lower calories, how much do they lower prices, if at all? What are the significant IVs?

* To what degree, if at all, do reduced portion sizes at the same price lead to diminished sales?