McDonald's To Post Calories On Menu Boards

Beginning next week, McDonald's plans to add calorie counts to its menu boards — both at drive-thrus and restaurant counters. Studies suggest that calorie boards alone don't change consumers' purchasing patterns. But consumers do seem to take note, and public health experts say it's one tangible step to helping consumers make healthier choices.

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If you're looking to count calories, McDonald's says it plans to make that easier. McDonald's announced yesterday that it will soon begin to post calorie information on menu boards, both at restaurant counters and at drive-through lines at all the golden arches restaurants in the United States. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Nutrition information has long been available at McDonald's, but beginning next week, calories will be posted right along with menu choices. So customers can't miss them as they're ordering. They'll see that the classic McDonald's burger has 250 calories. That's less than half of what a Big Mac has, and that a large strawberry McCafe shake with whipped cream has 850 calories. I asked customers at a McDonald's in downtown D.C. whether they liked the idea.

SHERYL MARSHALL: It would be nice to have that information available.

AUBREY: Sheryl Marshall says it won't stop her from ordering French fries, which she has long known are not low cal, but calories posted on the menu board might possibly nudge her to order a 230 salad to go with those fries.

MARSHALL: Possibly. Or like the Asian salad, and the chicken bacon ranch with the grilled chicken.

AUBREY: Now, many more restaurant chains nationwide may soon be required to post information about calories. It's a stipulation written into the 2010 House law aimed at helping curb obesity. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is developing specific rules to implement it, and the change could take effect as soon as later this year. In making its announcement now, McDonald's President Jan Fields says they're responding to what their customers want, which is more information about what they're eating.

JAN FIELDS: We're voluntarily taking a lead in this area because we feel it's important to do this for our customers.

AUBREY: It's not clear how many consumers will be swayed by calorie counts posted on menu boards. In some people's minds, fast food is there to satisfy a craving for burgers and fries, the fattening stuff. That's the way customer Marvin Ruffin(ph) of Northern Virginia tells us he sees it.

MARVIN RUFFIN: If I'm at McDonald's, I'm not worrying about calories.

AUBREY: Why is that? You don't look for healthier options on the McDonald's menu?

RUFFIN: No. If I want a salad, I don't go to McDonald's or any other fast food restaurant.

AUBREY: Ruffin's thinking lines up with what researchers found when they evaluated what happened in New York City after the city mandated restaurant chains to post calorie counts a few years back. Brian Elbel is an assistant professor at New York University.

BRIAN ELBEL: We haven't found that calorie labels have changed what people are ordering on any sort of large scale.

AUBREY: Elbel explains what he and his colleagues did was to stand outside fast food restaurants and talk to customers about what they were ordering and whether they noticed the calorie counts. They did this before the calorie labeling regulation went into effect, and then again after.

ELBEL: And we actually got their receipt, asked them a few questions about that, and then can go back and calculate the exact number of calories that they ordered.

AUBREY: So you found there was no difference in the number of calories ordered before and after?

ELBEL: You got it.

AUBREY: None at all?

ELBEL: None at all.

AUBREY: Now, this may sound surprising if you are among the small percentage of Americans who do count calories, even though this has taken off as a trend, logging and counting using smart phone apps or old-fashioned pen and pad. The vast majority of Americans don't do this. Some 85 percent of Americans, according to a recent survey, don't know how many calories they're supposed to be consuming each day, either to lose weight, or maintain their weight. Brian Elbel says it's possible that calorie boards may make more people aware.

ELBEL: It's quite likely that as this happens in more and more places, and as it rolls out across the nation, that more people are going to be paying attention to this, and I think that that can only be a good thing.

AUBREY: But on their own, he says, calorie postings are certainly not a silver bullet solution to changing the way people eat. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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