Last year, the Philadelphia City Council passed a measure requiring chain restaurants with more than 15 outlets to disclose calories on menu boards beginning on Jan. 1, 2010. My home town, Philadelphia—famous for the Philly cheese steak, all 900 calories of it—now joins New York City, several counties, and the state of California in passing such a measure.
Why is calorie posting such a good idea?
1) Knowing what you’re eating is the first step to eating sensibly.
I believe people will think twice about ordering menu items such as Arby’s Sausage Gravy Biscuit -(at 960 calories), or McDonald’s Vanilla Triple Thick Shake (at 1100 calories), products that supply half the daily caloric allowance in one meal item.
Until now we could live in ignorant bliss, because unless we went through the trouble of going to the company’s website or asking for nutrition charts, we wouldn’t know the numbers.
Will consumers lighten up their selections when presented with calorie information?
A study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health looked at 7,318 customers in 275 fast food restaurants. Of the 11 chains from which food was purchased in this study, 10 did not have calorie information at the point of purchase, and only one—Subway—did. Less than 5% of the study participants saw calorie information when it was provided only in less prominent formats, such as charts on counter mats, distant walls, posters or on a website.
On the other hand, 32% of Subway patrons saw the information, which was displayed near the point of purchase. This suggests that laws requiring calorie information be displayed on menu boards might increase the proportion of patrons seeing calorie information and taking it into consideration when making their choices.
Among the Subway patrons that reported seeing the caloric information, over a third reported that the information affected their purchase. Objective measurement of calorie content through examination of receipts confirmed that patrons who reported seeing and using calorie information purchased fewer calories than did those reporting they did not see or use calorie information.
While the average caloric reduction amongst the calorie conscious was modest—53 fewer calories—even a modest reduction on a nearly daily basis for millions of people frequenting fast food venues could be significant in slowing the obesity epidemic.
It’s estimated that three-quarters of adults use nutrition labels on packaged food, and using labels is associated with eating more healthful diets. There’s reason to believe that the same will be true for nutrition information in chain restaurants.
2) Companies will be changing their menu items to make their caloric posting more attractive.
The new measures encourage companies to reformulate or resize their menu items, find lower calorie alternatives, and abandon fat and sugar as the secret ingredient that makes all food more palatable. As New York Times’ Kim Severson writes:
“Restaurants and food companies are lightening recipes and portion sizes. Starbucks, for example, claims to have saved the nation 17 billion calories since last October by swapping 2 percent milk for whole…Dunkin’ Donuts recently added a low-calorie egg white breakfast sandwich, Così is using low-fat mayonnaise and McDonald’s large French fries have dropped to 500 calories this year from 570 last year. Quiznos is testing smaller sizes and less-caloric sandwich fillings in its New York stores.
Cathy Nonas of the New York City health department said this is all a reaction to public-health pressure…For some establishments, having their menus exposed by the New York law forced some caloric housecleaning. At Le Pain Quotidien, which has 17 outlets in New York, several items were changed or taken off the menu, said Jack Moran, a vice president. The popular Quiche Lorraine was trimmed to 6 ounces from 11, with extra salad filling out the plate. Sweets like brownies may shrink, too.”
Now, I believe we should have the freedom to eat whatever we want, no matter how unhealthy and fattening.
On the other hand, I think we have a right to know what’s in the food we’re buying. The price of our food in calories (and other nutritional information) is sometimes more important than the dollar price.
Restaurants that aren’t part of big chains, and don’t have standard menus are not subject to these laws, and I think that’s fine; it would be too costly to provide nutritional data on changing menus for these small businesses. I also think that eating at these kinds of restaurants is not an every-day thing for most people.
Since I eat most of my meals at home, I’m not concerned by the richness of the food my family eats when we go out to dine once every few weeks. We enjoy it as a special treat. I assume that the meal is indulgent in its use of ingredients that I try to use less of at home, and in these occasions, I just don’t worry about the calories.
On the other hand, if people are eating out regularly, as people often do at the fast food eateries (the average American eats out four meals a week), caloric information becomes important. Since the nutritional information exists anyway, putting it where it can be seen before selections are made, thus making consumers more informed is an incredibly useful practice.
I hope these menu labeling bills will build momentum for national legislation, making menu labeling the law everywhere people are eating fast food. We deserve easy access to this kind of information that will help us lead healthier lives.
Do you ever look at the caloric information at fast food and other chain restaurants? What do you think?
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