There’s a lot to the new Health Care Bill, which will be signed into law on March 30. Among the many changes to health policy is the clause requiring restaurant chains with over 20 locations to list the calorie content of items on their menu. New York was the first city to require calorie postings in 2008, followed by similar citywide regulations in Connecticut, California and Washington state. While many people believe that posting calorie breakdowns empower consumers to make healthier choices about the food they eat, a 2009 study found that half the patrons who visited four fast food chains in “low-income neighborhoods” in New York City did not even notice the new calorie postings. Of those customers who did notice the calorie content, only 28% reported that the listing affected their food order. Contrastingly, a report released by Stanford researchers in January 2010 shows that NYC Starbucks customers ordered calorie reduced offerings once the posting regulations went into effect. Both studies suggest that as time passes customers will become more familiar with calorie postings and will be more likely to use calorie content to inform their orders.
The accuracy of calorie listings however, remains up for debate. A recent Tufts University study suggests that the calorie count listed on menus can be inaccurate and may list calorie amounts that are up to 18% less than the true count for the serving size. Ongoing research into the effectiveness of calorie listings continues to find points on both sides of the issue.
Whether consumers take notice or not, fast food chains seem to have taken a cue from required calorie postings and made subsequent changes to menu items. Starbucks has changed its default milk to 2% (from whole milk) and McDonald’s recently reduced the size of a standard serving of fries by .7 ounces or 70 calories.
Though sufficient time may not have passed to accurately judge all the effects of calorie postings, time will tell if U.S. consumers at restaurant chains will be swayed to make healthier food choices when faced with the calorie content of their meals.
Allison Auldridge is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Urban Policy Analysis and Management with a focus on food policy at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York City.