The two biggest food phenomena I have discovered since moving to New York City about a month ago are (1) New Yorker’s obsession with sipping coconut water while strolling around town (strange given how powerful of a diuretic this stuff is…) and (2) cupcakes. Cupcake shops – standalone operations specializing in these treats – are on nearly every street in this city. New Yorkers must eat more of these things per capita than anywhere else in the world.

The other evening my friend and I decided to try out the cupcake shop across the street from my new apartment. I spotted a gooey little number with peanut butter and chocolate and was about to yell out my order when I noticed a few numbers on the bottom of the placard. 550 calories. Each. My friend and I decided to split one and yet I still felt guilty. I have not been back.

The food calorie labeling of fast food items is a unique feature to New York City. Our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, despite being a business mogul in a previous life is really a big public health wonk (he even has a school of public health named after him) and despite his own famous culinary indiscretions has been an advocate for city-wide big-brother style public health policies, including the labeling of food calories on fast food items and a ban on trans fats in restaurants across the city. There is no other city in the world where government has so much control over what put in our mouths.

But do these policies actually lead to better eating behavior, in particular among the poor where obesity is more common? A new study published today in Health Affairs by some of my colleagues here at NYU (Brian Elbel and Rogan Kersh) seems to suggest that the food labeling policy has not had much impact on the actual choices low income consumers make, those primarily targeted by these policies. The authors compared the behaviors of fast food customers in New York City and Newark, NJ before and after the introduction of the policy in New York City. They compared the proportion of respondents who said they were aware of the labeling, indicated that the policy influenced their food choice, and those who reported purchasing fewer calories. On these measures, the policy appeared to have been successful. However, when they actually compared the number of calories purchased by people (not just what they reported) – there was no change.

Ideally, a study like this should have accounted for the fact that the policy change may have changed the composition of the people presenting in the restaurants, but I would really only worry about this had they found a big change in what people were buying. The real contribution of this study is that it supports the view that changing human behavior, in particular when it comes to one of the best things about being a human – eating – is really, really hard. People were aware of the policy and even claimed it had changed their behavior, but it didn’t.

Perhaps we are all a lot like Michael Bloomberg after all: we are not very good a living by our own rules.

Photo credit to the Cupcakes take the Cake blog. Yes, a whole blog about cupcakes. These t-shirts are for sale at Magnolia Bakery in NYC, where of course you can also buy lots of cupcakes.

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