Buenos Aires Wants a Round of New York’s Failure with Calorie Labels

McDonald's and Burger King restaurants in downtown Buenos Aires. (Taringa)
Fast-food restaurants in downtown Buenos Aires may soon be forced to reprint their menus. (Taringa)

EspañolLawmakers are waging a war against personal choice in Argentina. Embittered by food selection that they deem unhealthy, the Argentinean Congress wants to force restaurants to disclose how many calories each meal they serve contains. With more information, they assure the public, customers will be able to make healthier decisions.

According to the bill, “restaurants serving elaborated or fast food must display in the showcase, as well as in menus, the calories of each meal in the same-size lettering and plainly visible.”

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter

Proving that ignorance and paternalism extend beyond political borders, the Chamber of Deputies passed the bill unanimously on Wednesday, September 23. Now the bill goes to the Senate, where it will likely be approved as well.

The bill argues that “the behavior of individuals could be nudged towards more nutritional, healthy decisions, helping to reduce obesity.”

From their pulpits, Argentinean congressmen tout healthy habits, as if their seat in Congress provides them with a special wisdom to micromanage the lives of ordinary citizens. They are certain that more information will led people to make what they consider to be more rational choices.

At the moment, it seems like the days of old-style, hard paternalism may be behind us, since the government could have gone with some sort of calorie cap, or even an outright ban on high-calorie foods, to protect people from their own lack of self-control.

Instead, so-called soft or libertarian paternalism has become the standard for policymakers to incentivize people to make more desirable choices.

US professors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler drafted this strategy in their widely popular book Nudge. They argue that with few changes to their environment, individuals that would have otherwise fallen prey to cognitive biases and the wrong incentives can be “guided” to make more rational decisions. In this vein, displaying the calories contained in each meal in menus will “nudge” consumers to opt for meals with fewer calories and generate greater “food awareness.”

Between Taste and Incentives

The plan might work for those who are already aware of unhealthy habits and want to ditch those few extra kilos in time for coming summer. In this case, additional information could help certain people count their daily calorie intake accurately. But calories don’t count themselves.

People who already have unhealthy eating habits are not going to be swayed by a calorie count printed next to a photo of double-meat burger with bacon, cheddar cheese, and onion rings.

Several reports published over the last few years, particularly after New York City enacted a similar law in 2008, have confirmed this.

For instance, a report by Carnegie Mellon University, published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows that despite being presented with more information on nutritional facts, people continue choosing what they like and not necessarily what is healthier.

Julie Downs, one of the authors of the study, says this nudging strategy is “unrealistic.”

“The people who set these policies aren’t very representative” of the people they target, Downs told NBC’s Today. Policymakers “think about what they eat. They think, ‘I’m not going to eat a giant hamburger, fries, and a milkshake for lunch.'” However, not everyone holds the same values and priorities.

Another survey, published in 2011 in the International Journal of Obesity, found no changes after New York mandated calorie labels in the menus of the largest fast-food chains in the city. Only 9 percent of the consumers polled said that they were influenced by the new information.

“The goal is that consumers know how many calories they are eating,” the bill says, but these legislators forget that the people they are “trying to help” couldn’t care less about this information and will ignore it anyway.

The evidence that mandatory labeling doesn’t work is everywhere.

Less Choice

There are those who will say this is a harmless measure. Who could the government be hurting by requiring this additional information? Well, for starters, the restaurants: they not only have to reprint their menus and rearrange their showcases, but must now jump through new bureaucratic hoops.

What happens when a restaurant wants to introduce a new meal for its customers? Before it can be served, the restaurant’s owners will first have to conduct the necessary tests to determine each new meal’s calorie count.

[adrotate group=”8″]

What about when a customer requests an off-the-menu item or a substitution? If I want mayonnaise instead of ketchup, or chocolate sauce instead of dulce de leche, will they have to test every single alternative to comply with the law? And what happens when seasonal ingredients are not available and must be replaced?

For years, the government has forced food companies to include the nutritional facts of the snacks, cookies, and sweets that they sell on their packaging. Why then do we keep making poor health decisions and have yet to solve obesity?

As with previous attempts to subordinate personal choice to politics, this measure will not succeed in its stated goals and will ultimately leave us with fewer choices, not more as the bill claims.

No one whose diet consists mostly of junk food really believes they’re eating a healthy meal, and they don’t need to be told to count calories to be aware of the obvious.

If those in Congress are truly concerned about excess, they should start at home and put the government on a lean diet: no new regulations or taxes. They could even include the “nutritional value” of their bills, how much each will cost, and where the money to pay for them will come from.

Forget paternalism. Congress needs to be reminded not to keep fattening the nanny state.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time