The awful caloric truth may be coming to a restaurant near you. Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro announced today that they plan to reintroduce legislation in the next Congress, that would require nutrition labeling on chain-restaurant menus across the country. But is it really a dietary deterrent to know that some coffee-shop scones have 700 calories—or will we just avert our eyes from those startling numbers and remain in dining denial?
Many health experts say labeling can be a useful tool in the war against obesity. Several cities, including Philadelphia and New York, already require calorie information to be displayed right up there next to the price of an item in fast-food joints and other restaurant chains. And on Sept. 30, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed similar legislation that made California the first state to mandate the display of calorie counts. A day later, YUM! Brands announced that it would add calorie counts to menu boards at KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's.
But will full menu disclosure make Americans too calorie-obsessed? "I don't foresee an epidemic of anorexia or an end of ordering from the barista," says psychologist Thomas Wadden, director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. "More than likely, it's going to help people consume a dinner meal that has 750 calories rather than 1,500 or 2,000 calories," says Wadden. That would be good news for a country struggling with an obesity epidemic.
To find out more about how menu labeling affects diners' psyches, NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talked with psychologist Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why is menu labeling so important?
Kelly Brownell: People are suffering from diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes in record numbers. And they are eating out more and more. About 50 percent of the food dollar goes to eating outside the home. When people eat outside the home, they eat worse. People really don't know the calories in the food they're eating when they do eat out.
The other important reason is just consumers' right to know. You have whatever clothing you're wearing now. It has the tag on it that says where it's made and what it's made of. Why? You deserve to know. When you buy a packaged food, it says what's in it. Consumers would be upset if that information was taken away.
Some studies have shown that customers buy meals that average 827 calories at fast-food restaurants—nearly half the recommended daily calorie intake amount. But will labeling really deter a McDonald's or Wendy's fan?
People [do] make healthier choices when there are calorie labels. It's also very important to say on the menu that the average person should consume 2,000 calories a day.
I live in Chicago, where menu labeling is not yet required. I only know from the Starbucks Web site that a low-fat blueberry muffin here contains 320 calories whereas the less virtuous seeming pack of two black-and-white cookies contains a comparatively low 240 calories. Is this one reason why we need menu labeling—that is, most of us have no idea which food is the lesser of two evils?
That's exactly right. Foods are manufactured with lots of ingredients. You don't know how much fat something has, or how much sugar. The only way to know is to have some sort of label. The industry will sometimes do things like reduce the fat in an item and crow about the fact that it's low fat, but they just jack up the sugar. You could end up with exactly the same number of calories, but the perception is that it's better.
Will labeling ruin the fun—how can you enjoy a piece of cake knowing it has 700 calories?
There are plenty of people who ignore those dire warnings on the cigarette packages.
Do you think people will ignore the menu labels, too?
From a public-health viewpoint, you don't have to get everyone to sign on to have an impact.
A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found that Subway restaurant patrons in New York City who saw calorie information, purchased 52 fewer calories-worth of food than did other Subway patrons. Are you surprised it's not an even bigger difference?
Not so much. There are more people who eat at Subway who are already trying to buy a healthy choice. I'd think you'd get an even bigger effect in other restaurants. By the way, 50 calories is not a trivial amount.
Technomic, Inc., conducted an online survey with 299 New York City adults in August of 2008 to get their reaction to calorie disclosure on menus and menu boards there. Eighty-six percent of participants said menu labeling was a positive move. Is that better than you would have expected?
100 percent of people are not in favor of anything! The vast majority of people support menu labeling. There's no downside at all.
The Technomic survey also found that 86 percent were surprised by the calorie counts; 97 percent said they were higher than expected. Do we think we're being more virtuous than we really are unless we're hit over the head with reality?
I don't know that it's so much we feel we're so virtuous as that restaurant foods tend to be pretty unhealthy. They tend to be high in sugar, salt and fat, and high in portion size. There's no reason that consumers would know how much sugar or fat is in something.
How will the economy affect our eating habits?
One of the problems with the bad economy is it will drive people toward less-expensive foods. [Fast-food restaurants'] profit margins are higher if they offer big portions. People feel they're getting a bargain. The incremental cost to them of extra food is almost nothing.