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Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus - To Wait or not to Wait

Monday, July 27, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
Image by Phototram.

Last week I came across a very interesting post on Marion Nestle's blog discussing the issue of posting calorie counts on restaurant menus, which has become a surprisingly controversial issue in recent years. For example, in 2008 the president-elect of The Obesity Society (an association of obesity researchers and practitioners which counts both Peter and I as members) was forced to resign following the backlash that erupted when he acted as a paid consultant arguing against a law requiring calorie counts on menus in New York City. Not exactly watergate, but a pretty big deal in the world of obesity research.

Many of us expect that if restaurants are forced to put calorie counts on their menus, they will probably avoid items that include outrageous amounts of calories (as Dr Nestle reports, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is already happening in California, where a recent law required that all fast food chains list calorie counts on their menus), while individuals are also likely to make healthier choices. The problem is that at present, there just isn't that much hard evidence to argue for or against placing calorie counts on menus. So while many of us think it's a logical step toward promoting healthier lifestyles, others argue that we should wait until we have more research.

This is where an interesting editorial by David Ludwig and Kelly Brownell in the Journal of the American Medical Association comes in. In it, Drs Ludwig and Brownell make the case that we should move towards calorie counts on menus now, rather than waiting for scientific certainty. The crux of their argument is this:

1. It is plausible that placing calorie counts on menus will help people reduce their caloric intake.
2. Although current evidence is limited, it appears to support the idea that calorie counts on menus reduce caloric intake.
3. The costs of this move are exceedingly small, since most fast-food restaurants have already calculated the nutritional information for all the items on their menu. The only "cost" is likely to be reduced sales of certain items, which the authors point out, is not a true cost from a public health perspective - in fact it's exactly what we want to happen!

I couldn't agree more. This debate is going to continue to rage on, but there just aren't many good reasons to delay putting calorie counts on menus, and the potential benefits vastly outweigh the potential costs. Placing calorie counts on restaurant menus is an idea whose time has come.

Travis



Ludwig, D., & Brownell, K. (2009). Public Health Action Amid Scientific Uncertainty: The Case of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Regulations JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 302 (4), 434-435 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.1045

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11 Response to "Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus - To Wait or not to Wait"

  1. Jason Woertink Said,

    I am sure companies like McDonald's would love this type of legislation since it would hamstring their smaller competition. As you said the large companies already produce nutritional information so it would cost them little to add it too the menu. But for small restaurants would be costly and time consuming. This would also help prevent future competition by creating another barrier to entry for new companies.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 2:49 PM

     
  2. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    Interesting comment Jason.

    In fact, of the big food companies the only one which has been fairly supportive of this move has been Subway.

    The authors of the editorial point out that loss of revenue to big companies (i.e. McD's) is also very likely given that presumably less people would purchase the high-calorie, high-profit items. They then suggest that this may actually increase competiition between businesses for creating healthier options - if McD's refuses to cut the calories of their menu items (not to mention saturated and trans fats, and sodium) - people will turn to another business that can.

    Then again, when you look at the healthier options being advertised by McD's, Wendy's and the like - the salads are actually more expensive than their more obviously unhealthy meals (e.g. Big Mac combo), so whether they will actually lose much revenue, I'm not sure.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 3:45 PM

     
  3. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    As far as I know the legislation in California, and similar laws proposed in other locations, only apply to large chains who are already have the nutritional information on hand. So it shouldn't be a barrier to independent restaurants.

    That being said, high quality nutrition software can be purchased for under $25, and calculating the calorie counts for a dish takes only two or three minutes. To calculate the nutritional info for an entire menu would take less than an afternoon - not much of a barrier at all.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 3:48 PM

     
  4. Jason Woertink Said,

    Also I wonder if studies have been done to measure the public ability to estimate the absolute and relative calorie count of what they are ordering. For instance I know that with smoking studies show that smoker actually tend to over estimate how dangerous smoking is to their health rather than underestimating. If people already have a decent sense of the calorie count or relative calorie count of the menu items then it seems like regulation may be an unnecessary burden.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 4:18 PM

     
  5. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    There actually is research on that topic - people consistently underestimate the number of calories that they consume (which is often exaggerated in obese individuals). Which suggests that calorie counts could prove useful in educating people to the actual caloric density of their meals. And given the minor costs to all involved, it doesn't seem like much of a burden at all.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 5:33 PM

     
  6. Lauri Said,

    I agree that calorie counts (all nutrition content too) should be made known to the consumer.

    Peter, my son worked at Subway for many months. As his ride, I sat and waited in the shop daily and in my experience, knowing the calories didn't seem to change people's minds. I also don't think people took into account the mayo, oil, parmesan. My son had a liberal hand with these. Calories are printed on the bags of chips and people still bought a bag -- sometimes 2 when they got the footlong. Subway makes money.


    Travis -- one of my favorite sites is free: www.nutritiondata.com. I like their 'analyze recipe' function where you can parse your own recipes and create a single chart of macro- and micro-nutrients. I don't eat at fast food restaurants -- never know where they will hide the soy -- and I resent the long list of fast food restaurants on this site. I am a slow food aficianado, but knowledge is power. When I first found the site, there were maybe 2 fast foods listed. Now there are dozens.

    That said, people will change when they are ready and no amount of nagging will jumpstart the process.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 6:48 PM

     
  7. Lauri Said,

    well, I had posted a longer post that must be floating around somewhere...try www.nutritiondata.com

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 8:05 PM

     
  8. Perry Said,

    I like the idea though I doubt it will have much effect since people who really care about this stuff have already investigated how many calories things they eat are.

    It may have an initial impact but eventually consumers will just ignore the data and order what they want. I wonder does the posted calorie content of snack food have an impact on sales?

    Now, it would be nice if someone could come up with a way to accurately determine how many calories are burned by various exercises & physical activities. A thing you attached to your skin which calculated burned calories would be nice.

    Posted on July 28, 2009 at 7:35 AM

     
  9. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    @ Lauri,

    Thanks for the link, the site seems like a great resource.

    @ Perry,

    I agree that some people might already know the nutritional information, and to them this won't really help much. Perhaps the biggest impact could be on restaurants themselves. As Dr Nestle pointed out on her blog, some restaurants in California are already adapting their menus to offer healthier fare (she notes one restaurant that dropped a 1200 calorie salad in favour of a more reasonable 390 calorie salad).

    There actually are some tools that can measure your caloric expenditure relatively accurately. In fact, the GoWear Fit armband is very similar to what you have described. It's not perfect, but it's about as good as you can get at the moment without living in a bomb calorimeter.

    Posted on July 28, 2009 at 11:10 PM

     
  10. ben Said,

    MediaCurves.com conducted a study on 402 viewers of a news clip featuring restaurants that provide nutritional information to their customers. Results found that the majority of respondents (84%) reported that restaurants should be required to list nutritional information. The study revealed that 60% of respondents indicated that requiring all restaurants to list nutritional information would help to decrease the national obesity rate.
    More in depth results can be seen at:
    http://www.mediacurves.com/HealthCare/J7577-CalorieCounting/Index.cfm
    Thanks,
    Ben

    Posted on October 1, 2009 at 5:25 PM

     
  11. Travis Saunders Said,

    @ Ben,

    That's a terrific video and interesting statistic, thanks for sharing the link!

    Travis

    Posted on October 1, 2009 at 7:18 PM

     

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.

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