Tuesday, June 03, 2008

What Those Fast-Food Calorie Signs Actually Look Like

Check out these pictures and ask yourself if in-your-face calorie information would change your chain-restaurant eating habits. I snapped these shots in the concourse of our office building to show Health.com users how restaurants have responded to New York City’s requirement that calorie counts be prominently posted (something I first blogged about a few weeks ago). The big question is whether point of impulse information can change the impulse, and I’m interested in what you think—the New York City law may be a model for other public health efforts across the country.

Chain restaurants have until July 18 before they’ll face fines for failing to post (assuming a current appeal, the second, doesn’t squash the law). But some restaurants moved early, and in a typical food court today you find a calorie patchwork—a few establishments have detailed listings on their wall menus, some have calorie counts on promotional posters, others (the majority) post no numbers at all.

The city’s Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (love that name) argues that obesity is epidemic and “common sense and published scientific evidence indicate that making this information readily available at the point of purchase will influence many consumers to make lower-calorie choices.” In a brief to the United States District Court in February, the department cited its own exit poll of Subway (sandwich, not train) customers, in which a third of patrons saw calorie postings and those who did “purchased items containing 48 fewer calories than patrons who did not see it.”

No question, some calorie counts are unsettling, as local media have noted. The modest-looking raspberry scone at Starbucks has 470 calories, for example, and the iced lemon loaf, in the same zone, has produced anecdotal evidence (i.e., from a Health.com editor, and others) that calorie posting causes shopper recoil from tasty favorites. The Subway personal pizzas deliver as many as 830 calories to your person: Jared would not approve.

The more I think about this, the more I like the experiment. The New York State Restaurant Association is appealing, but I hope they lose. Calorie posting has a whiff of nutrition police state, but it puts a bit of power in consumers’ hands. If patrons shy away from calorie bombs, restaurants can respond with alternatives.

You can see the health department’s fascinating timeline of the law on their website. And let me know what you think about the city’s little experiment: Is it a power-to-the-consumer moment or an overreach by the powers that be?

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