In The Health Bill, Calorie Disclosure Mandate
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Tucked deep in the health bill, now law, are a number of items that have gone relatively unnoticed. Among them, a requirement that all restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets post calorie counts on their menus or drive-through displays. So now, when you want to buy that Double Quarter Pounder with cheese, you'll also have to swallow the fact that it is 740 calories.
The question is: Will knowing more make Americans eat any less?
Well, Cathy Nonas is director of physical activity and nutrition programs for the New York City Health Department, which began requiring this kind of menu labeling back in 2008.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. CATHY NONAS (Director, Physical Activity and Nutrition Programs, New York City Health Department): Thank you so much.
BLOCK: What do studies show about consumer behavior? Has the labeling law there in New York made a difference in what people actually end up buying?
Ms. NONAS: Well, what we know from all of the studies really is that about 25 percent of the people who see calorie posting say that it changes their purchase.
BLOCK: They will buy something with somewhat fewer calories?
Ms. NONAS: Well, there was a tremendous amount of sticker shock, I think, for people when they first saw the calories. And it's very shocking to think that the hamburger that you're eating is almost half the calories that you should have for the day.
So I think that people took that seriously. And if they wanted to use that information, all of a sudden for the first time, they had it available.
BLOCK: It doesn't necessarily mean they're walking out of Burger King or McDonald's and finding some healthier alternative, though.
Ms. NONAS: No, there were two rationales for this posting regulation. The biggest one was that we knew that almost 50 percent of the food dollar was being spent outside the home, and that chain restaurants have a tremendous amount of that food traffic. So if you give people information, there will be a significant number of people who actually use that information.
The second piece, which is a little more subtle - but very, very important was the pressure that it would put on restaurants, because all of a sudden, they would have to post their calories. And they, all of a sudden, were concerned about consumer opinion.
BLOCK: I was reading a column on this by The Atlantic food writer Corby Kummer who said that Starbucks changed the milk that it uses in frappachino, from whole milk to two percent milk. As he put it: So they wouldn't have to admit that a frappachino could amount to practically as many calories as you should eat in a whole day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Did they really change?
Ms. NONAS: They did change and so their default is two percent. And if you want whole milk in your coffee, you have to ask for it now.
And we've seen that these formulation changes have occurred all over the place. You can look at Dunkin' Donuts and they have an egg white with whole wheat breakfast item. And they now call their healthy things Smart DD. You can look at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and they now have a grilled chicken. You can look all over the boards in terms of chain restaurants and see changes in promotions and changes in formulation.
BLOCK: Well, if you look forward from your experience in New York and think about what this means for the country on the whole, to have this calorie labeling in fast food restaurants, do you think it'll make a difference?
Ms. NONAS: I think it's one of the things that'll make a difference. You know, in any kind of public health policy, you have to be careful because this begins to set some environmental change. But we're certainly working across the country to have more policies than this in order to help people make the healthier choice the easiest choice.
I think that includes physical activity opportunities, access of healthy, fresh produce, a variety of things to make this a healthier place. And we've certainly done this in New York. And we've certainly reduced the disparities between the rich and the poor, and we'll continue to work on that.
BLOCK: Cathy Nonas, thank you very much.
Ms. NONAS: Thank you.
BLOCK: Cathy Nonas is a dietician. She's director of physical activity and nutrition programs for the New York City Health Department.