* A couple of weeks ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed sweeping new calorie-labelling rules for restaurants, making it mandatory to label the amount of calories in anything you eat anywhere — restaurant chains, vending machines and even the butter popcorn at your local movie theatre.
* It estimates that by telling people the exact calorific count, the value of the health benefits would be between $5.3 billion and $15.8 billion over 20 years.
The hidden math
* But tucked into the FDA’s analysis was an estimate of “lost pleasure” by consumers who might change what they eat as a result of the calorie labels, Reuters reported. Like when you opt for the apple over the brownie.
* The agency’s economists estimated the “lost pleasure” at $2.2 billion to $5.27 billion over 20 years, a range that reflects the imprecise science of assigning dollar values to lost enjoyment.
* This estimate derives almost solely on a 2011 paper by a then-graduate student Jason Abaluck, though the calculation was done by internal FDA staff.
Calorie display policy
* The FDA’s calorie display policy will come into force next year and apply to restaurants or food/drink dispensing operations with 20 or more locations such as restaurant chains, movie halls and vending machines.
*In its analysis of calorie counts on menus, the FDA projected that the rule would lead to fewer cases of obesity, Type-2 diabetes and heart disease, fewer medical costs to treat those diseases, and less suffering as a result of developing those conditions. The range reflects the uncertainty on how much calorie counts on menus can change people’s behaviour.
*Some health experts — and economists — argue that because diet is a choice, it’s not appropriate to use this kind of framework, which would be more often used to evaluate costs of forced changes.
* Consumers who eat healthier as a result “are presumably doing so because they are now better informed,” said Kenneth Warner of the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s leading experts on cost-benefit analysis. Anything a consumer freely chooses should not be treated as a forced loss of pleasure, he argued.
Brownie or apple?
*The question may ultimately be an introspective one: If calorie labels have changed what you eat, are you in fact enjoying your diet less?