McDonald’s Corp. (MCD), the world’s biggest fast food chain, will begin posting calorie information on menu boards at its U.S. stores next week as it works to stem criticism that its food causes obesity.
The state of California and cities like New York already require that calories be clearly listed on menus, reports Reuters. Under the new U.S. healthcare law, restaurants across the country must soon put calorie counts and other nutrition details on menus.
The rules target restaurants with 20 or more locations, as well as other retail food outlets. However, most major chains have resisted posting such information, without legislation and the threat of fines.
According to The Wall Street Journal, some studies suggest that having nutritional information available when ordering a meal prompts people to buy healthier items.
Other studies have found no such change in consumer behavior. But considering how prominent restaurants have become in the American diet, any change could have an effect on obesity rates.
Today Americans consume almost a third of their calories from restaurants, up from less than a quarter in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And people spend about half of their food budgets at restaurants now, compared to a third in the 1970s.
At first, when labeling proposals were gaining steam several years ago, McDonald’s representatives publicly opposed them. A common complaint was that rules from one jurisdiction to another were inconsistent. Some officials even said calorie disclosures would violate customer privacy.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, thinks the national calorie labeling deadline will probably be around the end of 2013 – so customers at McDonald’s will be getting the information about a year earlier than what will be required.
“If we see a similar effect from other chains you’d see about a 30-calorie per person per day decrease,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The thing about obesity is it’s caused by a slow, steady creep in people’s weight over decades. For most of us, we’re gaining one to two pounds per year steadily over decades and end up being 30 to 50 pounds overweight. The obesity epidemic is explained by about 100 extra calories per person per day, so if we get a daily 30-calorie decrease from menu labeling, that’s huge.”
McDonald’s has already taken steps to make menu items healthier. It changed its popular Happy Meals for children – reducing the french fries portion by more than half and adding apples to every order.
The company also rolled out a “Favorites Under 400” menu that highlights products in that calorie range.
Hiwever, McDonald’s hasn’t yet noticed a comprehensive change in behavior in the cities and states that have already mandated calorie counts to be posted.
“It hasn’t seemed to have made a difference, but what it says to the customer is, ‘We care about you and want to provide you with the most detailed information possible,’ ” McDonald’s USA president Jan Fields said in an interview.
“We feel it’s important to do this for our customers,” Fields said. “Calories are just part of the story.”
A Big Mac sandwich at McDonald’s has 550 calories, while a 12-ounce vanilla milkshake has 530 calories.
About two years ago, Panera Bread Co became the first national restaurant chain to voluntarily post calories at company-owned stores.
At the same time Sandwich chain Subway has used calorie disclosures to position itself as a healthier alternative to rivals like McDonald’s and Burger King Worldwide Inc.
McDonald’s fell 0.4 percent to $90.82 at the close in New York. The shares have slid 9.5 percent this year.