Restaurants, Vending Machines to Display Calorie Counts: Will Customers Care?
That'll be $4 for 400 calories please...
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to uphold a health care law provision made by President Barack Obama that required national restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts of their items. Though the timetable for carrying out the requirement has not yet been set—industry experts suspect early 2013 following the election season—companies have already begun abiding by the new rule.
Last month, McDonald's, the world's biggest hamburger chain, announced that it would post caloric information on in-store menu boards and at drive-thrus nationwide. (The cities of New York and Philadelphia, as well as the entire state of California, have already imposed the mandate.)
Now, the American Beverage Association, which represents the makers of such soft drinks as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, has revealed that as early as next year, calorie counts will appear on the vending machine buttons people press to select a drink. The machines will also sport small decals with suggestions like "Check Then Choose."
With one-third of Americans categorized as obese, and another third as overweight, will the efforts be enough to curb the nation's crisis?
Dr. Richard George, department chair and professor of Food Marketing at St. John's University, says any attempt made to fight the epidemic is a positive one, but believes it is younger generations that will be most will be most impacted by the change.
"We have a tendency in America to talk skinny and eat fat," George said. "So I'm not sure it's going to change the decision-making process, but people should have the opportunity to make choices based on full disclosure. The mothers of today's children are different than their own mothers were; they're really concerned with this issue and are looking for clues and signals, so it may not make a big difference overall but it will on people who are forming new behaviors, the younger generations."
Currently, 17 percent of America's children are considered obese. Psychologist Kelly Brownell, who directs the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, told NPR that the food industry spends $100 million a year marketing junk food—just to them.
As of last month, a McDonald's Big Mac sandwich had 550 calories; its 12-ounce vanilla milkshake had 530. And a mock-up of the new vending machine, provided by Coca-Cola, read '240 calories' when showing 20-ounce bottles of its flagship drink.
Professor Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, believes the new initiative is indeed a "good thing to do," but fears it could have an adverse effect on people who need the caloric information most.
"We have to be aware that it could backfire on the people that probably need it the most," Wansink said. "The people who are already eating at Taco Bell may be saying, 'More calories means more for my money, I'll get full off fewer dollars.' So if they're making a decision on what tastes better and is filling, they may choose the 800-calorie sandwich over the 400. We need to be realistic. Someone who's picky about what they eat probably isn't at Taco Bell anyway; they already have a pretty good idea of its calories."
More than 50 percent of the food dollar is now spent outside the home, said Brownell, adding that people tend to eat more (and worse) when eating out than they do at home.
But clients of Lauren Schmitt, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian, certified personal trainer and owner of Healthy Eating and Training, Inc., have already begun making changes in their eating habits.
"Most people are shocked," Schmitt said. "It does change what they're ordering. Some clients, after eating at California Pizza Kitchen, will say, 'I was getting the salad but, with ranch dressing, it has more calories than the pizza!' They thought they were doing the healthy thing and it opens up their eyes. They'll realize, 'Well, that's 1,000 calories, I can have it, but I just have to eat half.' You don't have to eliminate something, it all comes down to your portion sizes. So people shouldn't find this offensive; it's just making you aware, not taking things off the menu."
Though Schmitt has seen the effects of the caloric campaign first-hand, Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA, has not. She told the Associated Press that "calorie counts in New York and other markets didn't translate to any significant change in customers' eating habits"—for better or worse. But despite the lack of evidence, two things remain true:
"At the end of the day, we know we have to eat better and we have to exercise," said George. "You can have a 120-calorie soft drink, just not three times a day. You can have that delicious steak from Capital Grille, but not every night. And we all know the Coke Zero has zero calories, but we think the regular has a gazillion, and it doesn't. It's okay to indulge, but 'everything in moderation, including moderation.' Be smart."