Examining Restaurant Menu Calorie Counts

When restaurant menu calorie counts were proposed in New York City, quite a hubbub resulted. The restaurant industry sued. A president-elect of the Obesity Society resigned because he made the political mistake of asserting very publicly that the move might do no good or even cause harm.

Now it’s been five years since these rules have taken effect, and many other authorities have implemented similar rules. That would include the federal government, which will require restaurants nationwide with more than 20 locations to include calorie counts on their menus by 2014. Starbucks is implementing restaurant menu calorie counts this week. McDonald’s already has.

Five years into this experiment, we still don’t have compelling evidence that it’s caused people to change their eating habits in restaurants.

A study just published Friday in Preventing Chronic Disease concludes that “that menu labeling has thus far not affected the average nutritional content of fast-food menu items.” It’s worth noting that one of the authors is Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Wootan ranks among the strongest advocates you can find for restaurant menu calorie counts.

And while we’re dwelling on bad news about restaurant calorie labeling, we may as well mention that it’s not 100% accurate. Consumer Reports recently published an analysis that found some problems. The biggest problem? Portion sizes can vary all over the place. But still, they concluded, “Nutrition numbers from chain restaurants were generally accurate in our tests.”

So does this mean we’re down on restaurant menu calorie counts? Absolutely not. We want to know how many calories might be in what we’re ordering.

On the whole, we agree with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who titled his latest column, “Don’t Count on Calorie Counts.” We deserve good information, but it won’t solve all our problems.

Click here to read the study in Preventing Chronic Disease, click here to read about Consumer Reports testing restaurant menu calorie counts, and click here to read the column by Frank Bruni.

Noemi Reading the Menu, photograph © Max Khokhlov / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.