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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.