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Required Calorie Displays: Do They Hurt "Healthy" Restaurants?


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I was visiting NYC a few weeks ago and noticed that there were calorie counts listed on all the menus at the chains there (Starbucks, Cosi, etc.) In addition, in the recent health-care legislation we find:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A requirement tucked into the massive U.S health care bill will make calorie counts impossible for thousands of restaurants to hide and difficult for consumers to ignore. More than 200,000 fast food and other chain restaurants will have to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and even drive-throughs.

The new law, which applies to any restaurant with 20 or more locations, directs the Food and Drug Administration to create a new national standard for menu labeling, superseding a growing number of state and city laws.

In Cosí (a 100-location soup/salad/sandwich chain) I was struck by how high the calorie counts were: you tend to forget how many calories are in all that bread, even if you put on relatively low-cal toppings. But Cosí seems to be the kind of place that is trying to give off a "healthy" vibe, justified or not. When a salad cracks 1000 calories that Big Mac sounds pretty good.

To me it seems that there are two issues here: first, are restaurants that try to give off this "health-food" vibe suffering because of this sort of legislation? And second, is that reasonable? It's not like the nutrition of our food can be boiled down to just a single number, and an 800 calorie salad may or may not be better for you than an 800 calorie hamburger.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I think so. As a consumer I am personally savvy but I hear so many people who think the salad or veggie option is healthy and that healthy equals low calorie. For those that need to know calorie, fat, sugar counts the info is helpful, but once that number is in your mind it sticks. I had a friend extolling the virtues of the Chinese chicken salad at Pei Wei (a chain- never been) as only "X' number of Weight Watcher points (another form of calorie counting). It did not make sense so I checked on line and the count was for half the salad- right lets assume we are splitting a salad.... I did not say anything to her because that was way more veggies than she was getting with her usual meatloaf sandwich at the local diner. I don't condone deception, but I think the nutritional information in the hands of the public can be horribly misinterpreted.

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  • 3 months later...

The chains will do what they always do: Obfuscate, confuse and exaggerate.

There are 4 8 10 12 servings in a Big Mac, everyone knows that.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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I think it's a pointless exercise in the first place. A person who counts calories may think it is useful, but actually it is not necessary to know what calories are in what you eat to lose or maintain weight. Do the people who made this legislation really think that people are overweight because they don't know how many calories are in a big mac or a pasta entree? No, they are overweight because of years of poor eating habits such as regularly consuming significant amounts of very sugary or fatty foods, eating when not hungry, satisfying hunger by filling up entirely on comparatively calorie dense foods such as bread instead of using low calorie foods such as vegetables to satisfy their need for a "full" feeling, etc. Calorie listings on meals is not going to stop someone from eating a greasy burger with a huge portion of chips if that's what they want to do.

As a young woman, I already feel constantly bombarded with reminders to "shape up" and "watch what I eat" via commericals, magazine articles, other women and so on. I eat healthily anyway I and am satisfied with my eating habits, so I have no desire to see calorie lisitngs wherever I go. I don't want my food to be about numbers.

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The legislation is reasonable. 20+ locations means you already have that information in your back pocket. You just need to print it. Smaller places don't have the money or the need to get their dishes processed.

When Americans are forced to look at a wall of text, their eyes blurblur... and what was it that you were just saying? I'll have a double cheese burger, hold the pickles. Biggie fries. Extra salt. Extra crispy. Medium Coke. I'm watching my weight. Thanks.

The truth? Take a KFC meal versus an Ad Hoc meal and I'll bet my eye teeth and Obama's pretty little children that the Ad Hoc meal has more fat and more Calories. "Real food," fine dining, gourmet... at the end of the day, what makes their food taste good is no different than what makes any food taste good to the human tongue. They've just got more of it -- and they charge you for it. If everyone printed their numbers, and people actually read them, few would be dining out anywhere.

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The legislation is reasonable. 20+ locations means you already have that information in your back pocket. You just need to print it.

I think the people at Davanni's would disagree with your assertion that chains with 20+ locations have this info in their "back pocket." They're considering closing restaurants to avoid this mandate.

Administrative nightmare

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More sickening State coercion. Heightened regulations invariably favor the larger organizations over the smaller; the bigger ones possess the resources and financial means to obey and comply. Not only that, forced calorie displays have been shown to not really even work.

Counting calories is not an even a viable mechanism for weight control because it presupposes that all consumed calories are the same. This is, of course, foolishness.

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The legislation is reasonable. 20+ locations means you already have that information in your back pocket. You just need to print it.

I think the people at Davanni's would disagree with your assertion that chains with 20+ locations have this info in their "back pocket." They're considering closing restaurants to avoid this mandate.

Administrative nightmare

$150 per item for a pizza chain with 21+ locations is chump change. And he's calculating $10K per store to change signs and menus? That's some great imagination http://www.davannis.com/pdfs/LargeMenuPrintable_0510.pdf -- their entire menu. Pizza pie, salad, sammich, pasta. The only restaurants with smaller menus serve their food on trays, in cafeterias.

As for closing restaurants? The legislation is for more than 20, so all he has to do is shut down one store and skirt the law. Shut down the least profitable store and problem solved. A smarter move would be to make the change, claim $200K extra in expenses for the year -- oh wait, add an extra $200K in employee training, to better answer questions from the customers regarding the complicated, expensive new signage...

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Counting calories is not an even a viable mechanism for weight control because it presupposes that all consumed calories are the same. This is, of course, foolishness.

Even if it is a viable mechanism for weight control, I personally don't think it's healthy for long term use. If you can only eat food when you calculate the calories, how is that good for your mental wellbeing? Isn't it sad that people can't learn to control their eating habits without so much measuring and calculating?

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I'm all for consumer education, and I dare anyone to come up with a good reason why the consumer shouldn't know what percentage of their McBurger 3/8 Pounder didn't come from mammalian sources. (Good reason for the consumer, not McBurger Hamburger Restaurants Corp, that is).

Ideally (I think) you'd have a breakdown of the calories and their sources (eg, simple carbs, complex carbs, all the various types of fats etc) all immediately available to you, so you'd be able to make an educated choice about what exactly you want to order. Unfortunately, this would probably require menus that look like the back of a can of process cheese food. Not very attractive, or likely. But a business owner can always take advantage of things, and include extra information.

So, if you're trying to sell a salad that has as many calories as a Big Mac you can always point out in that very same menu that X% of your calories come from carbs, not fat. Or the healthy kind of fat. Or, whatever. Nobody is stopping you.

If a given chain is closing locations to avoid printing new menus, or to avoid publicizing the nutritional values in their meals, well, it amounts to (a)their business model is unsustainable or (b)they are hoping to sell things that give the impression of being something they are not. Screw them.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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When a salad cracks 1000 calories that Big Mac sounds pretty good.

And it probably is pretty good. Putting some lettuce in something doesn't make it healthy, and consistent overeating of anything isn't healthy. Poor schmucks go in and order a salad and think they are making out like a bandit -- tasty and low calorie! -- only to find now that it wasn't true. Naturally if they had given it any real thought (or understood what was in their food), they'd figure out that large quantities of cheese and ranch dressing are probably *not* better then a scrawny bit of beef and special sauce, but most people don't go this deep. This has the potential to at least remind some people of what they are actually eating.

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In Cosí (a 100-location soup/salad/sandwich chain) I was struck by how high the calorie counts were: you tend to forget how many calories are in all that bread, even if you put on relatively low-cal toppings. But Cosí seems to be the kind of place that is trying to give off a "healthy" vibe, justified or not. When a salad cracks 1000 calories that Big Mac sounds pretty good.

To me it seems that there are two issues here: first, are restaurants that try to give off this "health-food" vibe suffering because of this sort of legislation? And second, is that reasonable? It's not like the nutrition of our food can be boiled down to just a single number, and an 800 calorie salad may or may not be better for you than an 800 calorie hamburger.

I don't think that restaurants attempting to be "healthy" suffer more than other chains. People are generally incapable of remembering pricing or calorie information for very long, and are unlikely to say "Gosh, the calorie counts on these salads are kind of high, lets go to McDonalds!" And if they suffer at all, or people's habits change at all, appears to be debatable. That said, I do think it's reasonable to provide a minimum of calorie counts, even if as a consumer, that's only the start of the my decision tree.

I'll admit it - I'm fat. No one forced calories in my mouth, and for the most part, I've cooked them myself over the last several years. I've hit the point that I'm not willing to be fat anymore, and frankly, while it isn't as sexy as other diets, controlling calories works for me to take the pounds back off. For me - a calorie -is- a calorie. From the perspective of weight management - my body doesn't care if it's a calorie from fat or a calorie from broccoli. (Yes, there are some minor variations in metabolism, but they're largely irrelevant compared to the calorie flux between one restaurant sandwich and another.)

I still eat out at restaurants occasionally, and I do look at calorie counts (sometimes in advance, and more often after the fact). Those calorie counts help me decide what's a 'good deal' for my calorie budget. Sometimes it's the "healthy" option, and sometimes it isn't. But knowing that the salad and the burger have the same 800 calories gives me a metric for comparison.

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  • 3 weeks later...

From a consumer's perspective, I think displaying the entire nutritional content of restaurant foods - sugars, saturated fats, salt etc - rather than just the calories could be very benficial.

I do believe a lot of 'healthy' food marketing misleads consumers. Food and nutrition education is a big problem - some people don't receive good enough education at school or from their parents, and companies exploit this. There needs to be more transparency and better, non-biased education and information.

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I think transparencey is a good thing and has the added benefit of making the recipe developer work a little harder to make good tasting food without throwing in as many hidden calories. I don't count calories and don't have a problem with weight but appreciate knowing that my possible selection has a ridiculous amount of hidden calories and fat.

One of the chains I used to frequent for takeout near my old office had a spinach salad that I loved and would order at least twice a week. I would order the dressing on the side because I don't like too much dressing. I was shocked to find out that, even without the dressing, the salad was over 2,000 calories! Once the chain started posting nutritional info, they received a lot of flack and quickly started changing some of the worst offenders. My favorite salad went from 2,000+ calories to <700 calories. While not quite the same, it still tastes great. When I am working or traveling a lot and am forced to eat out all of the time, having the nutritional information allows me to decide if some ridiculously high caloric selection is worth it or not.

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I'm a big fan of posted calorie counts, precisely because they help consumers understand that the marketing veneer of "healthy" places is just a facade. Americans are (blissfully? woefully?) uninformed about the contents & calories in mass-produced food...we've scarfed down cheap, subsidized calories for decades now. If calorie counts cause menus to shift toward less caloric foods, then YAY. What I'd really like: for portion sizes to return to normalcy. Just try to buy an ordinary sort of lunch that isn't ridiculously oversized....I routinely throw away more than I eat. Such a waste...

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I saw on a TV programme that a large Pizza Hut Pizza is nearly over 3000 calories. That's even more than a woman is supposed to eat in one day!

Now, I know everyone knows pizza hut isn't great for you, but how many people might, say, once a month think 'I've had a tough week at work, I'm going to stay in and treat myself to a take away pizza and a bottle of red wine'? I think they have a right to know that they are taking in WAY more than their daily reccomended calories in one single meal!

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