Food Labeling — Restaurants and Calorie Information

Fast foodMany people believe that at least some obesity (PDF) could be prevented if only we were really aware of everything we ate. Awareness of why we are eating is always helpful, of course. It’s always a good idea to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I really hungry, or just upset?” and, “Do I have to eat now, or could I wait?” But some questions cannot be answered by us, no matter how deeply we probe our own hearts and minds.

For instance, very few people know how many calories they consume, and more of us are starting to think that’s important. Last summer, the New England Journal of Medicine published a piece by Marion Nestle, called “Health Care Reform in Action — Calorie Labeling Goes National” (which includes a handy explanation of exactly what a calorie is).

Back in 1994, when food products had to start printing nutrition information on their packages, restaurants were exempted from the requirements. Now, with the passing of a new law, any restaurant with at least 20 branches will need to reveal the calorie content of its offerings. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, has wanted this since 2003, when a report was issued whose findings Nestle summarized:

[… M]ore people eat meals away from home than ever before… U.S. children consume twice as many calories at restaurants as at home… nearly everyone underestimates the calorie content of restaurant meals.

Appalled by such discoveries, CSPI and other organizations worked very hard to change the labeling rules. Then in 2006, the Keystone Forum reported that restaurants either didn’t give calorie information at all, or kept it in an inaccessible place where the customer probably wouldn’t notice. And it would be an expensive hassle for them to do it differently. However, the forum concluded that the customers’ right to know how many calories they consumed, was more important than other concerns.

When the expense of a suggested project is discussed, an ordinary person might think, “Who cares if it costs the restaurant chains money?” But of course, the cost of compliance never comes from profits. When a company has to pay to observe the law, the cost is always passed on to the consumer. While this is not the most important consideration, it is something to bear in mind.

But what about consumer behavior? When people are surveyed about their preferences, they tend to say that they want calorie information to be provided. Whether their eating habits are actually impacted by having the information, is not so clear. Nestle says,

Some preliminary studies found menu labeling to lead to slight reductions in the number of calories people purchase, particularly when such labeling is accompanied by a statement referring to a recommended intake of 2000 kcal per day. Other studies, however, found no effect or indicated that such posting might actually encourage young men, in particular, to eat more.

People don’t really have much of a clue what it means for a large cup of chocolatey goop to contain 1,000 calories, but when you put it next to a number like 2,000 calories a day, a lot of people can grasp the idea that the shake contains half of their entire allotment for the day. Unless they are adolescent males, in which case, all bets are off.

Even when the labeling rule is observed, the stated number of calories might not be accurate, as researchers have found when attempting to verify claims. Or they might be too accurate. If somebody’s telling you a sandwich has precisely 397 calories, that’s bogus, because there is no way to know, exactly, about that particular sandwich. And if you construct your own salad, there’s no way to quantify the calorie intake. How can the restaurant management know how many croutons you intend to pile on there? All they can do is suggest a range. For instance, 170-780 calories for a salad — which, as information, is next to useless.

Surprisingly, for an issue that was so hotly contested, there don’t seem to be many followup studies tracking actual human behavior and how it will affect obesity levels. On the question of whether calorie labeling has “improved customers’ purchases,” surveys were done in New York (two years into mandatory calorie labeling) and New Jersey (no labeling.) Nestle says,

Although nearly 28% of New York customers said they noticed and were influenced by calorie labeling, this group purchased about the same number of calories as everyone else.

Nestle feels that calorie labeling is worthwhile even when the visible results are so scanty. Well, innovations do take some time to catch on.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Health Care Reform in Action — Calorie Labeling Goes National” (PDF),, 06/24/10
Image by ashycat (Ashton), used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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