Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Menu board calories matter to those who care.

There's been some negative press on menu board calories with many studies (including a recent one with adolescents) suggesting they don't drive change at all.

My gut's told me that the studies are premature and perhaps poorly designed, but guts are not something a person can hang their hat on (too slippery and cylindrical I guess).

That said, my gut's told me a few things.

Firstly it's told me that perhaps fast food restaurants aren't places where we'll see major changes. After all, people go to fast food restaurants to get specific foods. People go for their Big Mac's, their nuggets, their chicken buckets. People go to get foods that they specifically enjoy and putting calories on menu boards may be less likely to change their behaviour as the variety at fast food restaurants isn't much to get excited about and moreover, people already know what they're going to buy before they're at the counter.

Secondly it's told me that these things take time. When the surgeon general first started warning people about the dangers of smoking people didn't just suddenly throw out all of their cigarettes. Changes in attitudes towards smoking took a great deal of time and had someone pointed at the surgeon general's warning and said, "look, it didn't work so let's stop telling people not to smoke", I suspect there'd be a great many more smokers today. Menu board calories will likely need both time and caloric context to have impact.

Thirdly it's told me that looking at all comers isn't wise. By no means is everyone who enters a fast food establishment trying to control their weight or calories, and so looking at all comers may average out a real impact on the smaller percentage of people who actually do want to utilize that information.

Well guess what, my gut might be right - at least on point number 3.

A preliminary report out of New York City found that of the roughly 15% of fast food patrons who report caring about calories, they eat 106 fewer calories per outing than those who don't care or who ignore the counts.

Now the study's not been published yet so it may well have methodological flaws, but even if it does I think the study of folks who want to use the numbers is a much more useful means of analyzing impact.

My gut also wonders whether or not having calories on menu boards, along with public health campaigns on caloric literacy, will increase over time the percentage of folks who report caring.

So for all of those folks out there who've been so keen on jumping on the look it doesn't work bandwagon, perhaps you guys should have a sit down with my gut, or at the very least, give this experiment more time.

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  1. Knowing what's in the food that we eat is important, especially when some of us are out to "treat ourselves" whilst keeping reasonable in terms of calorie intake. I don't understand why this isn't a UK standard across all fast food restaurants - Only a handful actually offer calorie information.

    Great article!

  2. In my US state, all "family style" chains are included in the rules and must provide calories. I'm happy for the information. But ads on fast food joints must include calories! So (making up numbers) when the McD's is advertising 2 quarter pounders for $3.99 on a big banner in the window, the sign blares 900 calories by law as well. At some point this reaches the ridiculous.

    I do hope they don't extend this to family establishments as I believe it to be an undue burden. I know enough to watch portions and expect more rather than fewer calories than one might think.

  3. It's true that family style restaurants are required to post calories.

    My comment on Fast Food has to do with the fact that to date the studies on the impact of menu board posting of calories have been exclusively relegated to Fast Food.

  4. Anonymous9:45 am

    I doubt if anyone who was serious about their health would go near a fast food place.

    McD has little real food on there menu by the "eat meat and vegetables, no sugar, grains, lubricants, or manufactured eatable products standards".
    They use fructose as browning agent on there burgers. The salads are rinsed in sugar water or HFCS to prevent browning.
    Deep fryer oil is up to 25% trans-fat or glycinated. The chicken is all factory farmed, high in omega 6, which contributes to insulin resistance, and we wonder why people have hyperinsulinemia.

    but what do I know.

  5. Anonymous10:34 am

    I agree that the caloric content information at Fast Food places are basically only working for people who are already watching what they eat. They further enforce personal beliefs as to why those kinds of establishments are avoided in the first place.

    I also really like the family restaurant menus are starting to come with lists of the caloric content of the items. I was recently in Seattle and confronted with one of these lists while eating out, which made me completely change what I was going to order. This saved me many unnecessary calories that day.

  6. I think the point is - more information can't hurt. Perhaps if someone is dying for a bigmac they won't care what the calories are but as a healthy eater if I'm in a situation where I need to eat fast food I'd really appreciate the calories listed so I don't get sneak attack calories (something I think is healhty but isn't).

    At the same time, if I knew I should be watching my weight (but wasn't necessarily) seeing the calorie or fat content of something would probably push me to make a healthier choice.

  7. I think it is wonderful to post the nutritional profile at all restaurant establishments, as it can be very useful to those who are calorie or health conscious. I obsviously know that if I go out to a restaurant and order fries, that there are lots of unhealthy fats and unnecessary calories, but do it any way because I don't eat them every week. Someone who does eat them daily or weekly, might rethink their choices. I think itjust needs time to catch on!

  8. I agree with what you are saying and most of the comments.

    If you are watching your calories - that will help.

    If you are watching your HEALTH and trying to make healthy choices, calories will have very little to do with it.

    I watch both and never darken the step of any fast food truly is just garbage for our bodies and garbage for our planet.

  9. Katherine B11:41 am

    @Anonymous post #4: While I personally dislike McDonald's food, it is important to acknowledge the myriad of reasons why people eat there. Not only is it cheap, but the overwhelming majority of the population is not thinking about health when they walk in those doors. Although many people value health, not everyone consistently makes the connection between eating junk food and poor health... kind of like using tanning beds.

    From a food chemistry perspective, I highly doubt McDonald's uses fructose to brown their burgers, or HFCS to prevent enzymatic browning in lettuce. For example, they keep the apple slices white by adding vitamin C. If you have proof of this, by all means, I'd like to know. McDonald's claims their beef has no fillers, which is odd because even homemade burgers tend to have crumbs or oats in them as well as eggs.

    As for trans fats, McDonald's has voluntarily reduced them to meet Health Canada's limits... very smart from a marketing perspective. I.e. they throw away the cooking oil (made from canola oil therefore less omega-6's than soybean) long before the concentration reaches 25%.

  10. I like Ezra Klein's argument for the usefulness of requiring menu labeling ... it's likely an incentive for restaurants to make food healthier:

    If menu labeling is passed, however, and consumers exhibit any preference toward relatively less fattening items, that creates an incentive to reformulate those items to be less fattening. California, which recently passed a labeling law for restaurants with more than 20 locations, is seeing this happen. The Macaroni Grill, for instance, just cut its scallop and spinach salad from an astonishing 1,270 calories -- do they grow the spinach in butter? -- to 390 calories. Denny's has slimmed down its Grand Slam breakfast. And the law hasn't even gone into effect yet.

    Given the extent that people are eating so much prepared food, any tool that helps make this food healthier is not such a bad thing IMO. Now if only we could solve the margin of error problem!

  11. Baja Fresh has a salad that ranges from 240-850 calories and then in little writing at the bottom:
    "the chips included are 220". Its not perfect but its a start.

  12. Donna1:55 pm

    I do every now and then hit a fast food place. I was all set ready to order, a regular hamburger, regular fries and a pepsi. Heck it's a treat right. I saw the calories, my eyes got wide.. I ordered a kids meal with water. A hudge saving on calories. Wish it was mandatory to have them every where!

  13. "I doubt if anyone who was serious about their health would go near a fast food place."

    We don't always have a choice. I travel a lot for work, and often my only food choices are fast food and chain restaurants. Having calorie info available at these places is very useful indeed.

    It does seem likely that providing calorie info won't make a difference in the weight of people who aren't already conscious of calories. (At least, not in the short term, and not in the absence of a larger public information program to make the public more aware of what a reasonable caloric intake is for weight maintenance.) But to those of us who are, it's hugely helpful.

  14. Anonymous8:24 am

    I find it hard to believe anyone's only choices are fast food restaurants.

    Almost all grocery stores have a deli section, produce aisle, dairy cooler, many have delis with roasted chickens. Pita bread, hummus, cucumbers and tomatoes (which can be rinsed with bottled water). Not perfect, but way better than McCrap et al.

  15. The stinky thing is when you go to a restaurant, and find there is nothing on the menu that won't cost you a whole bunch of calories and fat. This happened to me at Chevy's - of course we couldn't leave, and I ended up getting the "healthiest" option, but not really enjoying my meal. If you aren't in charge of the restaurant choice while out with friends, family, etc. the added guilt just isn't fun!

    Sometimes you just need to enjoy your food, and work it off later - or be able to read calorie counts on the door, before you commit :) Maybe if restaurants are forced to show calorie counts, they will provide some better but still tasty options on the menus!