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Counting Calories

May 29, 2013
Calorie Counts Posted on McDonald's Lunch Menu

Calorie Counts Posted on McDonald’s Lunch Menu

The provision of the Obamacare Act requiring restaurants with more than 20 stores post calorie counts for their menu items was supposed to be in place already. Restaurants were also required to supply other nutritional information, including levels of sodium, carbohydrates, and saturated fats, in writing upon customer request. But the Food and Drug Administration has yet to draft the specific rules governing the postings, and even once in place, restaurants would have six months to comply with the requirement.

While there are several issues at stake, the major sticking point appears to be whether grocers selling supermarket-made meals would be required to post calorie counts. Many fast-food restaurants have already complied with the requirements, particularly in states like New York and California which had previously mandated such information be posted. But grocers and convenience stores are lobbying to stop the requirement, which they claim could cost as much as $1 billion per year. The law itself already exempted movie theatres, bowling alleys, airplanes, and other businesses whose primary business is not to sell food. Alcohol is also exempted.

Meanwhile, a new study by researchers at Harvard University illustrates why such information is needed. As reported in the BMJ,  fast food consumers–regardless of age or ethnic group—dramatically underestimated the number of calories in meals purchased at restaurants like McDonalds, Burger King, and Subway. Interesting, Subway customers underestimated their meal’s calorie count by the largest amount, a feature the study’s authors attribute to a “health halo” effect of Subway’s marketing program. Younger consumers were likely to underestimate the calorie content of their meals by the largest margin, as the table below from the study suggests.


However, we should be cautious in our conclusion that providing more information will necessarily solve the problem of overestimating nutritional quality of meals purchased outside the home. A previous study published in the Journal of Public Health found that 60 percent of teenagers ignored calorie information at restaurants even when it was presented in making their eating choices. Perhaps not surprisingly, boys and individuals who ate fast food more than twice a week were more likely to ignore the information than girls and less frequent users.

This suggests that addressing the problem of healthy diets requires more than simple posting of nutritional content, particularly when such information is presented outside a broader context of healthy eating. Education is not the panacea for the food crises facing the United States.


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