Would You Like a Calorie Count With That? Reform Law Will Open Diners' Eyes

ria-misra

Ria Misra

Contributor
Posted:
03/29/10
At a McDonald's in downtown Washington, D.C., Raymond Golt is trying to guess how many calories are in the small order of french fries he just ordered. "Maybe 60 or 70 calories," he says of his 230-calorie snack.

Tiera Thomas errs in the opposite direction, estimating that her 610-calorie meal of Filet-o-Fish and a large sweet iced tea total a combined 1,140 calories and that her 7-year-old son's 540-calorie Big Mac rings up at 900 calories.

Whether guessing too high or too low, diners tend to be poor estimators of the nutritional value of their food.

But a new provision included under the recently passed health care reform bill takes aim at that problem by requiring restaurants with more than 20 locations to post calorie information on the menu, along with pricing information, so that customers know what they're getting before they buy it.

It's not a new idea -- restaurants in New York City have been requiring calorie counts on the menu for two years. Having more information about what's in your food is important, and within the next year or so more Americans are expected to have easy access to that information on fast food menus. But the bigger problem for a nation fighting an obesity epidemic may actually be the easy availability of fast food, compared with healthy options.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that almost 24 million people, or about 8 percent of the population, live in so-called food deserts -- low-income areas where the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away but where fast-food restaurants and convenience stores abound.

But even for Americans who don't face that predicament, fast food can be a problem. "It's true that there are areas of cities where there's not much in the way of fruits or vegetables," Donald Rose, a professor of community health sciences at Tulane University, told Politics Daily. "But, when we looked around in New Orleans, what we also found were environments that were inundated with energy-dense snack foods that are easier to get to than fresh food." Rose calls these areas -- where healthy options exist but are overwhelmed by the alternative -- food swamps.

Of course, even if customers know there are healthier options are on the table, there's still no guarantee they will choose them. The Journal of Consumer Research looked at whether adding a salad to a menu made a difference in what people ordered. Turns out it did -- but mostly in the consumption of french fries. When a salad was on the menu, people were actually more likely to add an order of fries to their meal.