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Debate: Mandatory calorie counts on menus

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Is mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus good public policy?

Background and context

Many national, regional, and city governments in developed countries around the world have been experimenting with requiring restaurants and food chains to list on their menus the calories of the foods they offer. These efforts have been designed to respond to major obesity, health, and dietary problems in countries around the world. In the United States, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported in August of 2009: "The journal Health Affairs published a study showing that the medical costs of obesity have nearly doubled since 1998, to $147 billion last year, about half of which was financed through Medicare and Medicaid.
Obesity accounts for 9.1% of national healthcare spending, according to the study, up from 6.5% a decade ago. The costs are rising because Americans are getting fatter. The average citizen is now 23 pounds overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and obesity rose by 37% between 1998 and 2006." Despite such obesity crises, mandatory calorie counts on menus has been controversial. Many questions frame the debate: Do calories on menus improve consumer choice? Are calorie counts an appropriate government action, or do they go too far in "engineering" citizens personal choices? Are calorie counts effective at influencing consumer behavior? Do consumers, and particularly restaurant-goers care? Would consumers rather not be bothered by calorie-counts when they are trying to enjoy their meals, enjoying "blissful ignorance"? Do obesity problems, and the strain they create on health care systems and taxpayers, justify aggressive mandates such as mandatory calorie counts? Are calorie counts accurate enough for consumers to be able to rely on them? Will calorie counts pressure restaurants to actually make healthier foods? Can restaurants bear the economic burden of having to list calories? Should they be allowed to engage in calorie counting voluntarily, and will the markets demand it, or are government mandates necessary? Overall, are laws mandating that restaurants list calories on their menus a good idea?
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Choice: Do mandatory calorie counts improve consumer choice?

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Pro

  • Calories on menus empower consumers to make healthier choices The Department of Health argued in October of 2007, in regards to the New York city legislation mandating calorie counts on menus: "calorie information provided at the time of food selection would enable New Yorkers to make more informed, healthier choices."[1]
  • Calorie counts offer info, they don't pressure consumers Raquel Bournhonesque, a member of Upstream Public Health and the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance, who supported a 2009 bill in Oregon that mandated calorie counts on menus: "It is just information. It doesn't tell people what to order or how to eat."[2] This responds to the criticism that mandating calories is somehow "social engineering" or the coercion of consumers. It does not do so. The information that is provided on menus offers no judgement at all as to whether it is "bad" to consume a meal with 1,000 calories. But, it is important for consumers to know and have this information.
  • "Social engineering" with calorie counts is justified in health crisis. It is justified for the government discourage certain behavior when that behavior (overeating), has created a health crisis that both damages overweight individuals, and places a burden on other citizens (in the form of higher health care costs).
  • Fear of government should not obstruct calorie counts on menus "A recipe for controversy" Los Angeles Times (editorial). August 10, 2009: "all reform has to start somewhere. It's counterproductive to avoid action because of fears that it will lead to scarier actions later; the time to stop is when regulations become overly burdensome on businesses and overly restrictive of consumer choice. The calorie-count rule is neither, and it would also avert a patchwork of labeling laws in states such as California and New York by setting a national standard for all chains. As a bonus, it may be the only piece of legislation in 2009 with a strong chance to make Americans look better in their swimsuits."


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Con

  • Customers don't need calorie counts to choose healthy vs. unhealthy. People are not stupid. They know when they are eating healthy food and they know when they are eating unhealthy food. It is common sense. People that choose to eat at McDonalds don't need calorie counts on menus to demonstrate that the food is unhealthy. They already know, and don't care. If people want to choose to eat healthy, they already have enough information to choose to make healthier choices, such as eating fruits and vegetables, cutting portion sizes, and exercising regularly. People are already fully able to choose healthy vs. unhealthy diets and life styles. Calories counts on menus will not improve their ability to make that choice.
  • Calories on menus is a malign form of government social engineering Jeff Jacoby. "Want a warning label with those fries?" The Boston Globe. January 11, 2009: "[...] Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine puts his finger on it: 'A legal requirement is necessary not because diners want conspicuous nutritional information but because, by and large, they don't want it.' Nanny-statists find it easy to disregard consumers' wishes. After all, they reason, it's for their own good -- obesity is a deadly scourge that government must not ignore. Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach warned darkly last week that 'unless we make progress' -- that is, unless the government imposes new restrictions on liberty -- 'overweight and obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in Massachusetts.'"


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Rights: Do consumers have a right to know the calories on the menu?

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Blissful ignorance: Do mandatory calorie counts destroy blissful ignorance?

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Pro

  • Calorie counts rightly value health over blissful ignorance There is no such thing as "blissful ignorance". While it is interesting to argue that customers sometimes would prefer to live in "blissful ignorance" of the calories in the foods they are eating, this argument is much weaker than the general principle that more information is always better, especially when it comes to health. The "bliss" a few customers might feel when ignoring their health at a restaurant is far outweighed by the pain and suffering caused by obesity, heart-disease, and the strains on the health-care system that result.
  • Only small minority prefers "blissful ignorance" to calories on menus. It is probably true that some people would prefer not to know how many calories are in the food that they are consuming. But, this kind of blissful-ignorance attitude is the minority, and the majority - who care about their health - should not be denied this important information in order to prop up a mis-guided, ignorant, and harmful attitude.


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Con

Jordan Zack, a customer in California, told Team Sugar in 2009: "You don't want to know the calories on any day, especially not on your birthday. I just want to enjoy my food."[4]
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Opinion: Do citizens strongly desire calorie counts on menus?

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Pro

  • Large majorities of citizens want calorie counts on menus Steve Chapman. "Force-fed the facts". Reason. June 23, 2008: "A survey by the agency of more than 2,000 adults last summer suggested 85% of consumers agreed restaurants, pubs and cafes had a responsibility to make clear what was in the food they served, and later research showed people wanted clear, simple information at the point of sale. The agency expects consumer demand to force all food outlets from the very small to the very expensive to give calorie information." [such large majorities want to be able to make informed choices based on the calorie information provided on menus]



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Con

  • Customers are indifferent to calorie counts on menus In other words, consumers aren't really demanding "a choice", and calorie counts on menus. Ken Poulin, a consumer in New York said to USA Today in response to a 2008 New York law that required certain large restaurant chains in the city to list calories on their menus: "People are going to eat what they want; it doesn't matter what the menus say. People need to eat more vegetables and have common sense."[5]


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Efficacy: Are calorie counts effective at improving health?

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Pro

  • Calorie counts cause consumers to make healthier choices "Calorie Count On Menus Is Influencing Consumer Behavior, Says Technomic". Medical News Today. February 8, 2009: "A new survey conducted by foodservice consultants Technomic, Inc. revealed that the mandated calorie disclosure for New York City restaurants with 15 or more units is affecting what items consumers order and which restaurants they visit. Technomic found that 86 percent of New York City restaurant-goers were surprised by the calorie count information now listed on menus or menu boards, with 90 percent of them claiming that the calorie count was higher than expected. As a consequence, 82 percent say that calorie disclosure is affecting what they order and 60 percent say it is affecting where they visit. The researchers also found evidence that suggests a high level of consumer support for mandated disclosure of fat and sodium content in restaurant foods."
  • No "proof" calorie counts work, but a reasonable expectation New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said in 2008 in regards to legislation in New York City mandating calories on menus: "We don’t have 100 percent proof that it’s going to work, but we have a reasonable expectation it will be successful."[6] This responds to general arguments that "there are no assurances that it will work". This is always true with any policy, but should not hamstring efforts at making progress in solving major, systemic health problems through policies that have a good chance of working.
  • Customers will pay more attention to calorie counts over time. While it may be true that some tests have shown that many restaurant goers do not necessarily pay attention to calorie counts, this will change over time as more customers learn that the information is there and learn how to read calorie counts appropriately and judge them according to one's optimal daily calorie intake. The tests that have been performed, therefore, do not indicate how customers will respond to a new culture of calorie counts over time.


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Con

  • Labeling has not decreased obesity, why would calorie counts? Steve Chapman. "Force-Fed the Facts". Reason. June 23, 2008: "The belief that more facts will generate wiser decisions is appealing but, at least in the realm of food, yet to be proved. No one seems to have noticed that as nutritional labeling has expanded, so have American waistlines. The federal government first required packaged foods to carry such information in the mid-1970s, and today, we are collectively fatter than we were then. What does that suggest? Either people don't notice what's in the food they buy, or they don't let the knowledge affect what goes in their mouths."
  • Customers are indifferent to calorie counts on menus Ken Poulin, a consumer in New York said to USA Today in response to a 2008 New York law that required certain large restaurant chains in the city to list calories on their menus: "People are going to eat what they want; it doesn't matter what the menus say. People need to eat more vegetables and have common sense."[7]


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Obesity crisis: Do calorie counts rightly respond to obesity crises?

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Pro

  • Obesity epidemics justify mandatory calorie counts Obesity is a major problem around the world, and particularly in the United States. It is so bad that it certainly justifies taking decisive actions such as mandating the labeling of menus in restaurants.
  • Calories on menus respond to unhealthy restaurants Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in 2008 following passage of legislation in California mandating calorie counts on menus: "States and cities are interested in menu labeling because of the growing role that chain food restaurants play in Americans' diet. Most Americans get a third of their calories from eating out. And, unfortunately, restaurant foods play a very problematic role in our diets."[8]
  • Calorie counting is a critical component of a healthy diet. While it is true that calorie counting alone is not sufficient for a healthy diet - as one could simply eat two hamburgers a day and meet their calorie requirements - it is true that it is a critical component of a healthy diet. It could be said to be the most important single factor for all diets, particularly when the focus is losing weight. That calorie counts are not the whole story should not be used against them. They are just the most important factor in reducing the obesity epidemic, making it critical for restaurants to list calories on menus.


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Con

  • Calories on menus add to forbidden-fruit allure of high-calorie meals Frequently, when something is labelled as "bad", it becomes more desirable as a "forbidden fruit". Along these lines, some argue that adding calories to menus will cause some to see high-calorie meals as "forbidden fruit" and more desirable, subsequently back-firing and even increasing calorie in-take and health problems.
  • Calorie counts may cause eating less now, more later Dr. David B. Allison, the incoming president of the Obesity Society and a professor of biostatistics and nutrition at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said in February of 2008: "inadvertently encouraging patrons to consume lower-calorie foods that subsequently lead to greater total caloric intake because of poor satiating efficiency of the smaller calorie loads."[9]
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Changing menus: Will mandatory calorie counts compel restaurants to improve menus?

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Pro

  • Restaurants will not under-report calories and risk PR backlash. Restaurants that get caught under-reporting calories on their menus may face not only fines from the government, but also significant PR problems as stories of their manipulations reach and turn-off their customers.
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Con


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Economics: Are mandatory calorie counts economically friendly?

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Pro

  • If calorie counts cost unhealthy restaurants customers, good riddens. If calorie counts cause restaurants that make very unhealthy food to lose customers, good riddens. Restaurants that are contributing to serious health illnesses should be punished by the market. Calorie counts help do this, and forces restaurants to respond by making healthier menus.


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Con

  • Calorie counts on menus would be very costly for restaurants. Testing and counting the calories in all the different items on a restaurant menu is very expensive. In addition, printing out new menus with calorie counts would have a cost, and constantly ensuring the restaurants are meeting their calorie counts and state or federal regulations, will present new and unmeasurable staffing burdens and costs.
  • Calorie counts on menus will turn-off customers. Many restaurants will lose customers because they are forced to post calorie information on their menus, which is not particularly attractive or appetizing to customers. In general, by making dining out into an issue of health, instead of pleasure, the restaurant industry at large will lose customers.
  • Calorie counts over-crowd valuable menu space Adding calorie counts to menus will general crowd menus with excess writing and information, making them less attractive and turning off customers. Scott Vinson, vice president at the National Council of Chain Restaurants, said in May of 2009, "the menu board is valuable real estate, and there's only so much information you can get on it."[10]
  • It is difficult for restaurants to keep calorie counts consistent. It is a challenge in most restaurants - which do not work off of exact measurements of fat, butter, and olive oil - to keep the number of calories consistent within a meal each time it is prepared. This creates the risks that the calorie counts on a menu do not accurately portray the actual calorie contents of the dish, which creates a certain risk of lawsuits.
  • Calorie counts eliminate ability of restaurants to be spontaneous. How can restaurants be spontaneous with items on their menus if they always must list the calories in each item? They can't. Instead, they will have to "stick to the menu" more and more, and the creativity and spontaneity of chefs will dwindle, making restaurants less appealing to customers.
  • Enforcing calorie counts laws will be expensive for the state. Enforcing calorie count laws will be very expensive, as it requires that the government test and re-test each restaurant's foods to ensure that they continue to live up to the calorie counts they have provided on their menu. Because there is often a very clear incentive to under-record the calorie count, enforcement could be very difficult and require significant staffing and funding on the part of the government.


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Voluntary: Is a mandatory system best, or would a voluntary one be better?

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Pro

  • Companies focus on profits, so will not voluntarily list calories Companies never do what is best for the customer voluntarily, unless it increases their profit margins. For most restaurants, that don't cater to the health conscious consumer, calorie counts will hurt their business, because it will give people who are generally uninformed a real look at what they're eating. While this may be best for people, most restaurants have no incentive to do it.
  • No restaurant will be disadvantaged if all are required to list calories. By requiring all business to display calorie counts, any negative effect of such an act would have less of an impact on any restaurant, because everyone would have it, preventing consumers from wrongly thinking a restaurant that doesn't show calories is more healthy than one that doesn't.


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Con

  • Marketplace can encourage restaurants to voluntarily list calories If consumers care about calorie counts they will demand them on menus, eventually leading to businesses adopting calorie counts on their own out of necessity and desire for business. If consumers don't care then legislation to put them on menus is going to be utterly worthless. Why would consumers look at, or care about something they never even asked for in the first place?
Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the restaurant association's New York City chapter: "We don't object to people doing it voluntarily. Our problem was the government agency forcing them to do it. We think restaurants should be able to determine from their customers how they want to get the information."[11]


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On or off menus: Is it better to have calorie info on menus vs. somewhere else?

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Pro/con sources

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