GOOD

The Nutrition Labeling Distraction

Menu labeling might not change the way we eat, but that's only part of the problem.

Pretty soon, we're going to start seeing nutrition labels on restaurant menus. And when T.G.I. Friday's and Applebee's menus start look a little more like their packaged food counterparts, will everyone start making better decisions about their apple pies and sugary margaritas? Maybe.


No single dietary intervention will make a huge difference for all consumers. Take the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, for instance, which set back-of-the-package labeling in motion in 1990. In a recent review [PDF], Alexander Chernev and Pierre Chandon found that while one study suggested that labels increased comprehension of nutrition information, another study found no effect on search, recall, or choice.

There's no scientific consensus on the effects of menu labeling. But many researchers on the subject take stock in a single paper from 2010. In it, Stanford economists examined transactions made by 2.7 million anonymous Starbucks customers. Those buying food in New York City, where a mandatory calorie counts were on display, ate six percent fewer calories per transaction than their counterparts in Boston and Philadelphia, where calorie information was not posted on the menu. (Both groups had relatively the same amount to drink.)

Could this modest "Starbucks effect" be an indicator of how restaurant labeling will reduce everyone's caloric intake? Probably not. More likely, the study shows how labeling will affect nutritionally motivated customers—the kind of people who go to a New York City Starbucks in the first place. As Kevin Bates told me last week, if you're headed to Whole Foods Market or Subway expecting "healthy food," you might be in for a big surprise when the new menus reveal just how many calories a "healthy" salad has.

Either way, it's curious that our labeling "policy has moved way beyond the science," as behavioral economist George Loewenstein told The Washington Post's Mike Rosenwald last week. Earlier this year, Loewenstein was even more blunt about the pitfalls of labeling:

Calorie labeling, in effect, puts the onus of weight reduction on consumers, but consumers have not grown fat because they have stopped paying attention to what they eat; they have grown fat because processed food has become cheaper (both in terms of money and time), whereas fresh food has become more expensive. The most serious risk associated with calorie labeling, therefore, is not its effect on consumers themselves, which is likely to be minimal; the real danger is that it will substitute for, or delay, more substantive policies that get at the root cause of the problem.

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Clearly, any food label is bound to be a mixed bag. Perhaps a redesign of the Nutrition Facts label can help convert caloric knowledge into real behavioral changes. Either way, it's worth examining why we consent to food makers slapping useless (but relatively harmless) information on all our food, especially if it's distracting us from paying attention to the intrinsic imbalance that really matters.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

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The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.





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A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

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