The case for caloric labeling

Photo: Burger King

You have to give Subway props. If nothing else, they are more or less honest about their food. There's not a lot of mystery involved with eating a Subway sandwich, salad, or wrap. You get to choose what goes on it, you get to see it being made, you get to annoy the sandwich artist with your demands ("No green peppers! Extra jalapenos!"). And you get a pretty good idea of how many calories you have consumed, because Subway provides visible labels for its food, with calorie and nutritional information. Now, Subway prides itself on its "Subway diet", but the best thing about Subway is that they tell it like it is, more or less.

This can't be said of other restaurant chains. Fast food restaurants, for instance, were notoriously secretive about their food's calorie levels until very recently, and even now, you have to pry the nutritional information out of the restaurant (of course, you can look for it online, but that involves more planning than most people are willing to do).

New York City has been leading the fight to legislate caloric labeling at chain restaurants, hoping that an open display of just how many calories are in that burger will cause some diners to make healthier dining choices. Chain restaurants are the only ones being targeted by this law, partly because their food can be incredibly unhealthy, and partly because, as megacorporations, they can afford to change their signage to accomodate the law.

Businesses that are affected by the law have balked of course. Although they cite the cost of creating signs and menus that list caloric info, we're talking about businesses that spend billions of dollars on advertising every year, and who make billions of dollars in profits.

Some argue that calorie labeling won't make any difference in diner's choices.

“Do you think people will stop eating McDonald’s French fries and Big Macs?” asked Rick Sampson of the New York State Restaurant Association, which is suing New York City over its law. “It doesn’t keep me from eating a candy bar even though the calories are listed on it right in front of me.”

This is a disingenuous argument. For one thing, no one is suggesting that people should stop eating at McDonald's. But knowing how many calories you are consuming CAN help you realize that, since you're eating a Big Mac, you don't need the fries. The comparison to a labeled candy bar is also useless; most candy bars contain a couple hundred calories, maybe as many as 400 - a chicken Caesar's salad at Chili's has over 1,000 calories.

That's right. A chicken salad. Over 1,000 calories. That's over half a day's caloric intake for an active person who is not trying to lose weight. Think about that. How many women order salads at lunch as a part of being "healthy"? Can you imagine how much longer it would take to lose weight if you were consistently eating 400 more calories than you should?

The truth is, chain restaurants don't want you to know that your salad has 1,000 in it. If you knew that, you wouldn't order dessert or a soda with your meal. You might actually eat less when you go out, or you might start eating out less frequently. The truth is, the labeling WOULD be bad for business. It's not that your local McDonald's would be shuttered overnight, but you'd think twice about returning as often if you had to scour the menu for a meal with under 800 calories in it.

This fun this video from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (via Consumerist) does a nifty job showing how the food at popular "Italian" chain restaurants stacks up against junk food, calorically.

I understand that Americans really hate being told what to do, and businesses especially balk at additional rules and regulations. Some might argue that Americans need to take charge of their own lives and their own health, and not wait around for the government to come to their rescue. But how can Americans take charge of their health if they can't figure out how many calories they are consuming? It might seem like a no-brainer to some that a salad coated in dressing and parmesan cheese isn't healthy, but 1,000 calories? That one surprised even me, and I'll look for any reason not to eat at Chili's.

Wise Bread readers know, for the most part, that the healthiest meals are the ones that you cook at home. But for the occasional times that we dine out, shouldn't we have the right to know what we are consuming?

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Guest's picture

Actually, the McDonalds around where I live already label a lot of the packaging with the caloric value and have nutrition facts on the back of the paper tray-cover thingy.

Andrea Karim's picture

Yes, some McDonald's do this. But how helpful is it to see the caloric info AFTER you've received your food?

Guest's picture

It's a pet peeve of mine that the nutritional information is not listed on my bottle of amaretto. Just because it's a treat doesn't mean that I'm not better off being aware. I'm not allowed to distill my own (in the USA), so I can't use that method to know what I'm putting into my body. Maybe I should just give up the ETOH....

(And also it annoys me that supplements and homeopathic tinctures don't have the same labeling requirements as foods and medicines--it's going to the same place in my stomach/bloodstream/etc., right? I would guess that 80-90% of it is placebo effect--but the part that's not? I'd like to know which part that is! That should be a major basic research program!)

Guest's picture

I, for one, would love for restaurants to do this. About 2 months ago, I went on a diet/fitness plan that counted calories, and it was really discouraging to eat out because I had no idea of how many (mostly) calories I was consuming. Like you mention Andrea, eating at home is the best, but I'm an addict to trying new restaurants in my town.

Guest, try Calorie King for alcoholic calories. You might be surprised at the number of various liquors, beers, and wine counts they have on there.

Guest's picture

I've been wanting them to do this for so long, but not just for calories. It would be great if they would list other nutritional information too like amount of fat and carbohydrates.

It's really disconcerting going out to eat and not knowing how many calories you are eating. The only thing about it is that I think it's unfair that they only are targeting chain fast food restaurants. I think this is something all restaurants should be required to do if possible. It's just as easy to have a big steak and baked potato and consume half a day's calories as having a big mac and fries at McD's.

Guest's picture

Actually, I do in fact own one of the little Calorie King books (I won it at Christmas), but I'm not "dieting" and don't carry it around with me (I usually have schlep keys & wallet unless I have my whole big messenger bag). It also lists a lot of the fast-food and "casual sit-down" chains (TGI Fridays kinds of places), so if someone wants the info, they can spend the $8 and carry it. Still I think it would be good if it were just *there* on the menu/bottle/etc.

Guest's picture

I've been trying to be better about what I eat lately as entering my 40's apparently caused some metabolic flux. I would order a Chili's chicken Caesar salad or a Panera Greek salad as the alternative to what I thought were fattening choices. Oh the shock to me when I started Weight Watchers over a month ago! I get 23 "points" per day (which is really more than enough) but a Chili's chicken Caesar salad comes in at 20 points! Yikes! The Olive Garden is one of the few restaurants that doesn't post its nutritional info on the web; they list their healthy choices only but leave the rest of the menu up in the air. It does take some work to find the information, but boy is it eye-opening.

Andrea Karim's picture

The video I linked to mentions Olive Garden and Macaroni grill. The comparisons are completely insane.

Naomi, fast food chains are not the only ones being targeted. If you read the linked articles, you'll see that it's chain restaurants (like Outback, Olive Garden, Chilis) that are being asked to provide this information.

Guest's picture

I think it would be good for most people to know how many calories they are eating so they can plan for the rest of their day's intake. Once you've set food in a McDonald's, it's unlikely you're going to be eating anything there that's good for you. But you're going to eat it anyway, and knowing the dietary information of what you're eating will help guide the rest of your meal choices. If you know you've just eaten more than half your day's calories in a sitting, you're probably going to want to adjust for that at dinner. If you don't know how much you've just eaten, though, you may compound that with a poor food choice later. Sure, being overweight is an obvious sign that you're doing something wrong - but considering the variety of our diets, you can't fault people for not knowing precisely what it is they are doing wrong.

Guest's picture

So many every day foods come from abroad. In this country, manufacturers import a ton of food products from China (not just tainted pet food and baby formula). I'm not saying that the best standards for food handling and growing are happening in the United States all the time, but I think a majority of us would think twice about what we are purchasing if we knew the origin. I'm not saying the US should stop importing, but don't we have the right to know where are food is coming and then make the informed decision of what we put in our bodies and how we want to live our lives. I know this point might not directly relate to nutrition information of your article, but it all comes down to having the right to know so we can make informed decisions for ourself and not having the government's lax standards make them for us.

Guest's picture

I have a twisted reason for supporting this.
If restaurants had to list calories, they might make portions smaller, which would mean I'd still have room for desert!


Guest's picture

If you have a Carl's Jr. chain in your area, you might be pleased to know that they usually have a wall poster up which lists their foods and associated nutritional information. The poster doesn't list their "temporary" items such as their teryiaki pineapple based burger, but each of their every-day items are on there. As for McDonalds, as previously mentioned, most of their nutritional info is on the back of the tray-liner thingy. They usually also have a fold-out brochure that has a more complete listing. These are all available before purchase if you take an extra 2 minutes to look and/or ask.

Contrary to what the new regulations are expecting to provide, I have more issues with the smaller local chains and mom-n-pop restaurants. The big chains are easy to get information from. Unfortunately with the smaller guys, they say they don't have that information available. When you ask for an ingredient list for an item, they say it is proprietary information and refuse to give it out.

What I would like to see is a law that forces ALL restaurants to make available either composite nutritional information, or an ingredient list (including measurements.) I'm not advocating that these restaurants need to spend the money to get every item scientifically tested. They have the ingredient list and they can take the information from the ingredients and put them together for a composite. It will not be quite as accurate as the testing methods, but will be close enough for nearly anybody's need.

As for cost to the establishment, it would take a person probably 3-4 hours to compile the appropriate information for the entire menu based on average (off the top of my head) menu size. They could fit the information on 4-6 pieces of paper that they could put in a cheap binder and make available to view upon request to an interested customer. If you figure the minimum wage for a waitress to spend the time to compile this together and the cost of a cheap binder and some paper, the restaurant is looking at under $30 as a one-time cost to provide this information, and very minimal expense to maintain the list if/when they modify their menu.

I prefer to support local businesses, but when McDonalds provides me the information I need to fit their products into my semi-healthy diet plan, I choose them over the local diner who holds their recipe secret.

Guest's picture

The reason for the New York law targeting chains wasn't their budget for changing menus, it was that they have limited options and standardized portion sizes (a big mac is a big mac everywhere you go) which make the whole process much more feasible. Independent places have a lot more variations.

Second, Subway doesn't provide it's information any more freely than most other fast food chains, except for their statement of "under 6g of fat" on qualifying subs. You still have to find the poster on the wall, brochure or website to find out a meatball sub has about 1000 calories. Sure, they provide some healthy options, but not everything is healthy, and not everything is a raw ingredient that is easy to guess nutrition info for.

Third, with the exception of Quizno's, who refuses release information in the US for anything but their 3 "healthy" options, every fast food joint I've seen (as well as places like starbucks and jamba juice) has a poster, brochure, or binder readily available for viewing -- I've never even had to ask, I just find them. (note: for quizno's, if you're interested you can find the info on an Australian website if you search real hard. if you like to eat there, i suggest not viewing the info.)

And, to Jeremy, for independent places, your plan may work if they have a standardized menu, don't use seasonal ingredients, and the cooks all make things exactly the same. Most places aren't like this though, so it's less reasonable. They could give a "guess" though, or at least list the important parts (this cup of soup has a cup of whipping cream and a pound of butter in it). But it wouldn't be very "easy" for them to maintain accurate data on everything.

Finally, if you are really trying to be frugal, eating out should be something special - not just a way to get food. You shouldn't need to worry about what you're eating, just enjoy the experience. That's really what you're paying for after all.

Guest's picture

Ironically, NYC's proposed health code change in September 2006 to make chain restaurants add calories to their menu boards backfired (at least for non-residents). NYC wrote the health code revision so it would "only affect restaurants that make calorie information for standard menu items publicly available on or after March 1, 2007." As a result, some restaurants, including Chipotle and Cold Stone Creamery*, removed nutritional information from their website to (presumably) avoid having to comply with the regulation. (I believe that NYC wasn't allowed to implement this regulation but you can check this site for the original press release:

In general, I'm in favor of calorie labeling but if we decide to make it a law, it should be written in such a way as to avoid these types of problems.

* Cold Stone Creamery would allow non-NYC residents to request nutritional information via email

Guest's picture

There is a restaurant in Goleta, California that print out your nutritional information right on the receipt! I think that's where all fast-food joints should be headed. See

Guest's picture

I'm such a good girl 98% of the time when it comes to watching out for junk food that I just let myself have the durn cheeseburger and fries once in a blue moon and enjoy it. I truly almost never eat out, I'm such a tightwad, and I cook healthy food daily. I don't give a hoot about the calories, maintaining my yard and watching the nephews keeps me moving constantly and it's a whole lot more interesting than the old days of working out in a gym and worrying about what I ate all the time. I would not want to be in my 20s or 30s again if you paid me. Looking back, my God, I am so glad those days are gone. The doc says whatever I'm doing now, I should keep it up (blood pressure and lab work are fine and I take cod liver oil, a garlic tab and a multivitamin daily). I'm 52.

Guest's picture

SC, I agree with you that it will be harder for some restaurants than others. That is why I suggested a binder which could be easily and quickly updated for a new recipe by adding a new sheet of paper rather than a full-color brochure or wall poster. Under 5 minutes when they add or update a recipe and they are done. I don't know about you, but at least in my area every restaurant I've been in has a standard menu offering that rarely if ever changes, then they rotate some seasonal specials in and out. 90% of their info would always be accurate, it would just be those specials that need updating.

As for different cooks preparing food differently, I understand what you're saying. My point is it would still be close enough and far better than nothing. Sure you may get an extra ounce of mashed potatoes one visit and get shorted an ounce the next, but it is still going to be fairly close. If one chef is consistently over-portioning a meal, they won't last long. The restaurant management will see a drop in the profit margin of that meal or even across the board when that cook is on-shift.

And yes, eating frugal does mean eating at home more and eating out less. Even still some of us do count calories every day, and making sure we eat 900 calories instead of 1200 for the meal can make a big difference in a daily nutrition plan. It could also benefit the restaurant... If they list the nutrition information on my main course, I may decide I can afford some extra calories and buy desert, where normally I would have over-estimated the meal to be safe and wouldn't have had the room in the calorie-budget.

Regardless, I do agree with you that it is easier for McDonalds to provide the information than it is for Becky's Diner down the road. I merely think it is beneficial to everyone, including the restaurant, to provide the information even if it is a little inconvenience to them.

Guest's picture

It's important to know that appropriate daily calorie intake differs from person to person. I'm tiny - under five feet tall. I used to read food labels and take their recommendations at face value - but they're all for an "average" person whose recommended calorie intake is 2000 a day. For someone my size, 1400-1500 a day is much more appropriate, so I was eating hundreds of extra calories a day.

Counting calories all the time, for the rest of my life, would be tedious, but I'm glad I did it for a few weeks - it gave me a much better sense of how much I should eat in a day.