Calorie Labeling in Restaurants

Fast FoodAt the point in time when only a few municipalities had adopted the idea that restaurants should reveal the calorie counts of their dishes to the customers, a bunch of young people voiced their opinions at Weigh2Rock. This website has published a series of polls to keep track of what kids are thinking about their obesity issues and many other related topics. The question was,

Should fast food restaurants be required to list calories alongside foods on their menus?

Three possible standard answers were offered, and of course in the Comments area, the kids could write anything they wanted. Of the proposed answers, one was, “Showing the calories in fast food will make people think twice before ordering,” and 68% of the respondents said “yes” to that. Another possible answer was, “Showing calories in fast food will upset people, so they will eat more later on.” That only got 3% of the vote. And 29% expressed negativity, agreeing to the proposition that “Showing the calories in fast food is a waste of time — people will just ignore it.”

Sixty-nine percent of the respondents said they had consulted the available calorie information in a fast-food restaurant, while 31% said they never had. In the comments section, a 12-year old girl remarked,

If that person is smart enough to look at the calories just in case, they would probably think about what might happen if you eat that product.

A 13-year-old wrote that seeing how many calories are in, for instance, a burger, would be great, and went on to say, “I feel so relieved that I know cause I won’t eat that any more.” Which may be overly optimistic, but if it works for her, that’s good! A 17-year-old girl was doubtful:

If someone is craving […] a hamburger, do you think they’re going to care about the number of calories it contains? I wouldn’t.

And that is the crux of the matter. If food addicts are anything like heroin addicts, you can give them all the information in the world, and it’s not going to help. You could hand an addict a packet of powder with a clear warning printed on the label: “Use of this product could kill you, put you in prison, or lead to any number of other unpleasant consequences. Don’t do it!” And that addict will not pay the slightest bit of attention.

So, calorie labeling probably won’t do a thing for anyone who has already started down that path. But it could help somebody in a pre-addicted state to put the brakes on. And such information is definitely useful for people who are not addiction-prone, but who are careful about what they ingest.

And a 16-year-old Weigh2Rock participant puts her finger on another crux of the matter:

It is only fair that people know what they are eating — we all deserve that right. It doesn’t matter how bad the nutrition in the food is, we need to be able to get that information!

Which is about as fairly as the case can be stated. These are consumer issues, knowing what a product is made of and where it came from, and the possible dangers associated with its use. Especially in the area of food, which is consumed in the most literal sense. When you’re planning to eat something and bring its essence into your very own cellular structure, knowing what it is, and what the results might be, is pretty important.

Back in March of last year, when the legislation went into effect, Stephanie Rosenbloom explored the ramifications for the New York Times. The menus and drive-through signs of fast-food establishments must now give calorie counts, and even vending machine snacks have to reveal this information.

The journalist spoke with the director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Kelly D. Brownell, who said that people just aren’t aware of what they are eating when they eat out. And since the average consumer spends more than half of the food budget eating out, this matters. Rosenbloom says,

While Mr. Brownell acknowledged that some consumers will ignore the nutritional information, he said labeling would affect the decisions of enough people to create a public health benefit.

The restaurant chains had been against the whole idea, but fighting the battle city by city and state by state was wearing them down, so they finally capitulated, realizing that a single federal standard would make life easier for everybody.

Of course, the free-market types came out against it, being sensitive to the already high levels of governmental intrusion on every facet of life. But there doesn’t seem to be a leg to stand on. Nobody is trying, yet, to get them to stop selling what they sell, only to apply a little truth in labeling. When New York City got tough on restaurants, they fought back in court by alleging that their constitutional right of free commercial speech was being violated. Considering all that advertisers have gotten away with over the years and still have the nerve to perpetrate, the “free commercial speech” argument is beneath contempt. Rosenbloom adds,

Critics of the new law also contend that there is little evidence to show that menu labeling leads people to eat better.

Well, so what? That is the public’s problem. If people have relevant information and choose not to act on it, then at least the problem is where it belongs. While everybody may have the right to go to hell in their own chosen way, they should at least be doing it with informed consent.

Last week, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published the results of a study carried out in King County, Washington, where fast food labeling laws have been in effect for a couple of years. Researchers collected results after about a year, and found that mandatory menu labeling was not rocking the fast-food enthusiasts’ world:

Thirteen months after the law went into effect, food purchases at the Taco Time restaurants in King County were identical to those at Taco Time restaurants where menu boards did not list nutritional information.

The lead author of the study, Eric Finkelstein of Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, told the reporter that they “could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior.” Consequently, any positive influence on the obesity epidemic seems doubtful. Los Angeles Times journalist Shari Roan is not indiscreet enough to suggest that this study might have been flawed, but she does note that…

Taco Time was already identifying its healthier food choices in all of its restaurants prior to the new labeling law.

One of the comments appended to Roan’s article went straight to the point:

If you’re counting calories and eating at taco bell, you should remove yourself from the gene pool because you’re a total moron.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Poll #80,”, 03/10
Source: “Calorie Data to Be Posted at Most Chains,”, 03/24/10
Source: “Menu labeling law doesn’t register a blip at Taco Time,”, 01/14/11
Image by nanquimvirtual (namquim), 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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