Legislators and food service operators in two continents are turning to nutrition labelling in the fight against unhealthy eating.  But will more information translate to a leaner population? With recent findings showing that consumers value convenience over health, the answer might lie in encouraging balanced lifestyles and providing incentives for manufacturers to offer healthier products.

Legislators in Maine and New York are preparing to introduce bills requiring food service operators to display nutritional information on menus and product packaging. Supporters of the bills believe that greater transparency will deter consumers from eating fattening foods and help fight obesity.

Across the pond, recent press rumours suggest that McDonald’s is expected to start displaying calorie information on wrappers as well as on signs inside its restaurants. The company has intensified efforts to counter the public perception of it as unhealthy food chain, especially following the failed New York lawsuit last month. The case accused McDonald’s of failing to make clear the health implications of a diet containing too many hamburgers.

Whether in reality more conspicuous nutritional information for away-from-home foods can genuinely help to lower the incidence of obesity, however, is less certain. Indeed, findings from a number of consumer surveys and anecdotal experiences do not seem to support the belief that nutritional labels can dramatically change eating habits.

Recent research shows that barely more than a third of consumers avoid high fat foods as much as possible, with speed and convenience highlighted as key influences in deciding what foods to eat. Many consumers are also unwilling to pay extra for low- or reduced-fat foods but have no problem paying for more expensive meals or snacks that offer convenience. It is no wonder that sales of chips and cookies continue to skyrocket.

A more effective approach to the obesity problem might be mass education on the benefits of balanced lifestyles that allow occasional slips for fatty or junk foods – although the decision in the recent McDonald’s case rested on the opinion that such information is already widely available.

A more radical approach would be for legislators to provide incentives for manufacturers to offer affordable, healthy and convenient products, either by levying ‘fat food’ penalties or offering subsidies.

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