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Griffin to Go: How Effective Are Calorie Counts on Menus?

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Do you care what the calorie count of a dish is when it looks this good?

A friend, Melody Campbell Goeken, recently went to New York and was surprised to find the calorie counts listed on menus in the restaurants there.

Perhaps horrified would be more like it. As she posted on Facebook, “Am totally depressed. All of the menus have the calories listed right next to the dee-lish descriptions!! Loaded potato skins, 2070!!!!!!!”

Yet for almost two years now, the city has required that all restaurants include these numbers on their menus.

Does having that information affect people’s choices?

“A menu with caloric information really

makes you think about what you choose,” Melody says. “The downside of listing only calories is that you don’t know other important details such as sodium and sugars. I think the information is very helpful as an awareness tool, but does not explain the full nutritional value — or lack of.”

That’s the view of a visitor passing through, and I might do likewise the first time or two that I would dine out in New York. But I have a feeling I would soon get to be like the diners of fast-food restaurants who participated in a study last year. The results shows that “about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards,” the story in the New York Times says. “About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

“But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.”

What we say and what we do are often two different things. If I really wanted loaded potato skins or a baked potato piled high with cheese, butter, bacon and sour cream, then it wouldn’t matter what the calorie count would be.

I do agree with Melody, however, that the data is incomplete. I don’t pay attention to calories. I try to monitor sugar and carbohydrate content. So, I wouldn’t be ordering potatoes in the first place. But a nutritional analysis on a menu might tell me if the sauce on a pork dish has been loaded with sugar or remind me of why I should stay far, far away from most restaurants’ rice dishes or pasta. For others, it could be fat counts or exposure to gluten or peanuts.

I’m not in favor of requiring each and every one of these on a menu, any more than I am for forcing restaurants to list calorie counts. Do you think it would affect your eating habits over the long haul, especially if you knew the nutritional breakdown of, say, puffy tacos or a plate of cheese enchiladas? You may say yes now, but think of all the studies that have been printed before on these foods and not one has changed affected the popularity of these dishes.

Cracked thinking

McDonald’s is one restaurant chain that will give you a card with the nutritional breakdown of its dishes. I just wish it was a little more willing to change its egg-buying practices.

The American McDonald’s recently voted against a move suggested by the Humane Society of the United States to include at least 5 percent of cage-free eggs in their breakfasts. And that was the end of that. Nobody’s forcing the company to buy anything it doesn’t want.

Yet, at the same time, the European McDonald’s is moving to all cage-free eggs by the end of this year. In the latter case, all of the European Community will be required to use cage-free eggs by 2012, so the company is simply staying one or two steps ahead of regulation. (Click here for more.)

For the past five or six years, I have purchased only cage-free eggs for home use, not just because of the questions of cruelty involved in conventional egg production. The eggs I buy have yolks with the deep orange-y yellow color of a Veuve Clicquot label. The flavor is richer, and so are the results of baked goods I make.

That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped eating eggs. I know that restaurants and taco trucks in the area don’t use cage-free eggs, nor should they be forced to by some unnecessary regulation. But I would be more willing to patronize a place that offered cage-free eggs in the same way I prefer to visit places that offer the freshest sustainable produce and meats.

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One Response to “Griffin to Go: How Effective Are Calorie Counts on Menus?”

  1. Julia Rosenfeld says:

    I agree that the full nutritional info would be a far more informative listing — and I too wish it could go that way. However, my big concern is for “the little guy” restaurants in this. How hard is it to get a full nutritional breakdown (or even just a calory count) for every dish served? Would it simply encourage WAGs that become fabrications just for the consumer’s peace of mind? Food for thought.