Should Restaurants Post Menu Calorie Data: Food For Thought?

Yesterday, I read an interesting article in the business section of the NYT.  The article was entitled,”McDonald’s menu to post calorie data,” and was written by Stephanie Strom.  Apparently, the new health care law requires that all restaurants with more than 20 locations must post calorie counts on their menus.  It is unclear when the rule is to go into effect, but McDonald’s has decided to post calories now.  I know that for quite a long time, McDonald’s and a number of other restaurants (some fast food and some slow food types) have provided either a brochure listing nutrition information, including calories,  about items on their menus, or have highlighted “healthy choices” on their menus, but this rule means the calorie information must be in plain sight.

The debate

The requirement that calorie information be prominently posted in restaurants is somewhat controversial.  It’s the same old debate between those who believe one role of government is to protect people, and that includes making certain people know, or at least have easy assess to information about what they are eating.  Of course, such information is already available for packaged foods.  The other side of the argument is that government regulation is costly and the government should not be trying to tell people what they should or should not eat.  I am not going to get into the debate, but there are some interesting data that that are worth knowing about.

The data

One basic question that must be answered is whether making calorie information available to people influences their eating behavior.  If posting calories does nothing to influence eating choices, I do not believe there would be any possible benefit to making restaurants provide the information.  On the other hand, if posting calories results in lower caloric intake, that might be a reason to provide the information, at least from the perspective of those concerned about health issues related to obesity and other conditions.  So are there any data?  Well, as I learned from the newspaper article, a study at Stanford University found that after Starbucks stores in New York City began posting calorie counts in 2008, for customers who purhased more than 250 calories per transaction, calores purchased declined by 26%.  That is really amazing.  Just to play with the math- if pre-calorie labeling I always ordered 800 calories-worth of food and drink, and after the labeling appeared, I ordered 26% fewer calories, that comes to 208 calories.  If I go to Starbucks every Monday-Friday, it means that with the calorie labeling I would ingest 1040 fewer calories per week, unless I compensated for my drop in Starbucks calories by eating more at lunch.  That comes to 52,000 fewer calories per year (that includes two weeks off for vacation where there are no Starbucks).  That number of calories translates roughly into 17 pounds!  Really.

So, the data cannot resolve the debate as to whether government should “force” restaurants to post calorie information.  But, in practical terms, the requirement does not seem to be much of a burden and at least McDonald’s does not seem worried that having the calories posted will cut into their bottom line.  There are certainly things government does that might be considered more contentious, such as  taxing and fighting wars.

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