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FDA calculates junk food’s 'lost pleasure' in menu labeling rules

The FDA’s projected benefits of calorie labeling on menus still outweigh the expected industry costs and any lost pleasure combined.

Can you put a price on the sinful pleasure of a dense, double-chocolate brownie melting in your mouth? Or the rush of happiness (or is it trans fats?) that accompanies a greasy-salty bite of French fries, fresh from the deep fryer?

The FDA did.

It figures that consumers will suffer up to $5.27 billion in “lost pleasure” over 20 years as a result of the calorie counts restaurants will be required to publish on menus beginning in November 2015 as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Reuters reports that the “lost pleasure” analysis was tucked into new regs published last month by the USDA mandating chain restaurants, grocery stores' chains selling prepared food, big vending machine operators, movie theaters and amusement parks to display calorie counts.

“It’s a very controversial analysis," says Reuters health reporter Sharon Begley, in a video about the move. "Many public health experts are asking just what the heck FDA thinks it’s doing.”
Public health advocates say the “lost pleasure” stats make the new regs more vulnerable to challenge by the industry. Others say the analysis is too subjective, the news service reports.

According to FDA documents, Begley writes, in creating the analysis, the agency relied almost solely on an unpublished paper by a then-graduate student, who has gone on to teach at Yale. Speaking with Reuters, Jason Abaluck defended the FDA's decision to reduce its estimate of the health benefits from labeling in part because "healthier foods are worse off on other dimensions such as taste, price and convenience." He said a revised version of the paper will soon be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. His paper is based on a concept called "consumer surplus" long employed by economists to calculate benefits people get from various goods and services which may not be fully captured by market prices. Some leading economists, however, say there is no justification for the FDA's application of consumer surplus to calorie counts, because the government is not banning a product but just making information available.

The FDA’s projected benefits of the menu labeling still outweigh the expected industry costs and any lost pleasure combined, FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Corbett Dooren told Reuters. At the low end of its estimates, FDA projects that the menu rule will bring net benefits of about 10 cents per person per day.

The research is still out on whether calorie counts alter consumer purchasing decisions. A 2011 study published in American Economic Journal examined transactions from Starbucks and found that calorie posting reduced food calories by 6 percent—an average of 247 to 232 calories per transaction—but made no significant difference in beverage purchases. Research from Johns Hopkins suggests the real benefit of calorie labeling is to incentivize chain restaurants to offer lower-cal dishes. For example, from 2012 to 2013, new menu items in 66 of the 100 largest U.S. restaurant chains contained an average of 60 fewer calories.

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