Calorie Counts and Menu Labeling
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Margo Wootan, DScWe’ve been working on menu labeling for the last decade or so, and so there are a number of cities and states that have already implemented calorie labeling right on menus and menu boards at chain restaurants. And a lot of the headlines say that menu labeling isn’t working, but most of those come from small studies, and studies have to be pretty big in order to show dietary effects across populations. So for menu labeling you might expect that people could cut 20, 30 calories per person per day on average. You’re not going to cure the whole obesity epidemic from just one change like menu labeling. And from bigger studies that’s exactly what we see, about a 30 calorie per person per day decrease in calorie intake, which from a population standpoint is really good result. The whole obesity epidemic is probably explained by an extra 100, 150 calories a day. Until menu labeling is in effect nationwide, which will probably be another year or so, we don’t really exactly know what the full impact will be, but having the calories posted will allow people to make their own choices about how many calories. Should they go to one restaurant or another? Should they get the cookie or the scone? Should they get one chicken sandwich over another chicken sandwich? That often times, from a split second decision, just choosing a different size item or a different kind of hamburger, people can cut hundreds and sometimes at sit down chain restaurants, a thousand calories from their order by just choosing a little bit differently. And it doesn’t even have to be significantly healthier. If you order the French fries instead of the onion rings, you could save 300 calories. Order the chicken wings instead of the nachos and save some calories. If you get it instead of the cheese fries, you could save about 2000 calories. So there are so many calories to be eaten at restaurants. The portion sizes are so big that just little changes in what you order could make a big difference to your diet and to your weight. But another key reason why we worked on menu labeling is to try to change restaurants’ behavior. Because right now when they want to add something healthy, often times they’ll just add a salad or a chicken breast, because people will think of those things as healthy options. But once the calories are posted, they could make more subtle changes to the menu to bring the calories down. They could take the cheese out of a salad or off a burger to bring the calories down significantly. They could switch to light mayonnaise or mustard instead of full calorie mayonnaise. They could just make the bread a little bit thinner. There’s so many ways to shave calories off of restaurant foods and with menu labeling, they’ll have an incentive to do that, because people will known what’s in their food.
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