Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012
by Kristen J. Tsetsi
As more restaurants elect to disclose the number of calories in each of their menu items, reactions from the public are just as mixed now as they were in 2009, a year after New York City imposed a regulation requiring restaurants to publish calorie counts.
In 2009, when London’s Gauthier restaurant owner Alexis Gauthier decided after a trip to New York City to include calorie counts on his menu, a London-based blogger asked her readers whether they wanted that information.
Their answers in the comments section ranged from an emphatic “Yes!” to, “When I want to eat healthy, I cook for myself. When I go out, I want to be blissfully unaware. I know it’s full of butter, it’s supposed to be!”
Asked today whether calorie counts are welcome on a menu and whether they’ll influence food purchases, American restaurant-goers’ answers varied just as widely as those of our London counterparts three years ago, with 38-year-old Washington D.C. resident Bill Hutchison’s “Yes” coming up against 38-year-old Springfield, Va. resident Regan Carver’s, “Not much. The main decision is walking in.”
Gauthier was quoted in the London Evening Standard in 2009 as saying he included calorie counts on his menu because “people want to know the impact of what they are eating.”
But is there any real evidence that knowing how many calories are in a restaurant food item influences the decision-making process?
Researchers in 2009 found that calorie listings had little effect on the 1,156 subjects eating in fast food restaurants located in low-income, minority New York communities. Findings from “Calorie Labeling and Food Choices: A First Look At The Effects On Low-Income People In New York City,” a study conducted by researchers at the Yale School of Management and New York University and published in the Health Affairs journal, showed that “27.7 percent (of those surveyed) who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices. However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling.”
But according to another 2009 study, this one surveying more than 15,000 lunchtime fast-food customers and published in a 2011 issue of the British Medical Journal, one out of every six said the posted calorie information helped them make food buying decisions. These customers, the study says, “purchased 106 fewer calories than those who did not see or use the calorie information.”
Carver, who said the decision to eat high-calorie food is made upon walking into certain restaurants, echoes the sentiments of others who would argue that eating in a restaurant, whether fancy sit-down or casual fast-food, means already having a fairly good idea of how many calories will be in a given meal. No one goes into a hamburger or fried chicken establishment expecting health food, so it would seem there would be little interest in seeking out the option with the fewest calories.
However, according to the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, studies reveal that customers frequently underestimate how many calories are in restaurant meals. Knowing the true number could indeed lead some customers to reconsider.
Asked whether he would change his mind about a menu item he thought was 400 calories if he learned it was closer to 750, Carver said, “Yes, that would change my mind.”
Many customers visit specific restaurants for certain food items and give little thought to the number of calories they contain, and others are more interested in nutritional value and portion size than simple calorie counts. Still, others are taking advantage of what began as what New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said in 2009 were changes designed to “make a difference in combating today’s obesity epidemic.”
Calorie count didn’t used to make a difference to Aurora, OH writer and kennel manager John Sharp; however, since starting a food journal in an effort to lose weight, he said, “I do look, and I do try to select better items. For example, what I used to order (at a local chain restaurant) was 700 calories, and I’ve switched to something that is under 500.”
Mount Holly, N.J. resident Pamela Gagliani Coker, who has also recently begun a weight loss regimen, said that before she began trying to lose weight the calorie information would have made little difference to her ordering. Now, she regularly researches nutritional information and calorie count online before visiting a restaurant.
“So, it wouldn’t change anything at this point. It would save me planning time, though.”
On a personal note, Ian and I stopped for a McDonald’s breakfast on the way to take the ferry home last weekend, and had I not seen the calorie count for the breakfast burrito meal – two burritos and a hash-brown oval – I might have ordered it rather than deciding to nix the second burrito. So, it certainly makes a difference to me. What about you?