Would You Like A Calorie Count With That?

Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Allison Aubrey about the move by McDonald's to begin listing calorie information on restaurant and drive-through menus nationwide. In what may come as a surprise to some, the highest-calorie item at McDonald's isn't a burger.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Next week, McDonald's will become the largest fast-food chain in the country to display calorie counts on its menu boards. Won't that make you think twice when asked: You want fries with that?

NPR's Allison Aubrey has been reporting on McDonald's announcement this week. She joins us in our studios. Allison, thanks for being with us.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Scott. Glad to be here.

SIMON: You might think that a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder with cheese and lots of other stuff would be the real gut-buster. But you've been going over the menu and there's some things you should alert us to.

AUBREY: Well, you know, I think some of the biggest surprises are in the calorie counts of the drinks. A large Strawberry McCafe Shake with whipped cream has over 800 calories; the chocolate version has 870. So you'd have to eat more than three of the Baked Hot Apple Pies to reach this calorie count.

SIMON: But doesn't mean you should eat three of those pies.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: That's right. And some of the breakfast items, are up there too. There's something called The Big Breakfast that has hotcakes, hash browns, sausage; that has more than a thousand calories. But, you know, you can also order an oatmeal with fruit that has under 300.

SIMON: Uh-huh. Steering your choice according to calories always the wisest way to go?

AUBREY: Calories are a good starting place here. Remember, those 800calorie large McCafe Shake? Well, it also has about 120 grams of sugar. That's about 25 teaspoons of sugar, just to help you picture it. When you consider that the American Heart Association recommends that most adults limit added sugars to about 150 calories a day, just nine teaspoons, you see, that the McCafe Shake has quite a bit of sugar.

SIMON: Allison, do we know if posting calories makes any difference in the menu items people choose?

AUBREY: When people do pay attention to calorie boards or calories, you know, being posted on menu boards, they say that they may be swayed by them. But when researchers have done studies examining receipts, such like going back and looking at what people really buy, they find it doesn't seem to change their behavior very much. You don't see a significant cut in the number of calories that they're buying.

But, you know, it's early days. As this becomes the norm, or more of the norm, perhaps more people will, you know, be counting calories or at least making this part of their conservation.

I think, personally, recently I was in a Panera Bread and it was sort of breakfast time. I had been eying a muffin. And I noticed that the chocolate croissants sitting right next to it had sort of half the calories. So this was in the 300 calorie range. And I have to tell you, on that occasion, I actually opted for the chocolate croissant.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But people going into McDonalds don't expect the health food experience. Would that be fair to say?

AUBREY: You know, I figured...

SIMON: From the moment they walk into the Golden Arches, that's to what they're looking for.

AUBREY: You know, I actually think what's fair to say is that they're so many McDonalds' customers, that they're all over the map. And I spoke to lots of people at McDonalds after this announcement this weekend. You definitely hear form a fair share: Hey, look, if I was looking to eat healthy, I'd be going somewhere else. I'm here today 'cause I want this splurge. I want my burger and fries.

But certainly I think McDonalds has customers that at all points in the spectrum.

SIMON: NPR's Allison Aubrey, in our studios. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: All right. Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MCDONALDS' AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Pa-ra-pa-pa-pa, I'm loving it.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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