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Calorie Labeling In Action

nutrition.jpgI've been thinking a lot about calorie labeling lately. New York has it. California is moving toward a version of it. And there's legislation being considered to do the job nationally.

The idea here is pretty simple: Chain restaurants would have to put calorie counts on their menus. If you want to order a quarter-pounder, you're going to know its caloric content. This is the sort of idea that will one day come to seem like the most natural thing in the world. Like with the long fight over nutritional labeling on store-bought foods, the controversy over menu labeling's passage will give way to a consensus over the importance of its presence. After all, in a world where we do a giant chunk of our eating at restaurants, it's important know how many calories different foods contain.

The question is whether it will also be an effective idea in changing consumer behavior. More on that in a moment. First, the anecdata: I went to Potbelly's for lunch today. I used to eat lunch at Potbelly's a lot. I do so rarely now. But my order is the same: Vegetarian on wheat with triple hot peppers, and a bag of Baked Lays. I'm having a bit of a bad day, though, so I made a rare addition: a warm, gooey, oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie.

All quite delicious. When I got back to the office, though, I decided to see what it added up to. First, I looked up the cookie. A solid 450 calories, with 19 grams of fat. Yikes. But what might have actually changed my purchase was knowing the content of my sandwich: According to the nutrition calculator, 525 calories.

The calories in the cookie weren't startling. But their calories relative to my sandwich proved a bit off-putting. I could pretty much have ordered a second sandwich for the caloric cost. Buying them without the information, it was easy enough to just consider them a side dish. As it happened, the cookie was more like a second lunch. I wouldn't have ordered a second lunch. Good to know.

You can imagine a lot of marginal changes like that after a menu labeling law goes into effect. Someone doesn't order the chips, or the cookie. They get a Big Mac rather than a Quarterpounder. It's not about making healthy choices. It's about making relatively healthier choices.

But would small changes in matter? They might. The following table comes from a Health Impact Assessment prepared by the County of Los Angeles on calorie labeling laws. It shows how much of the whole county's projected weight gain would be averted if calorie labeling got X percent of restaurant patrons to make average decisions that were Y calories smaller:


Impressive, no?

By Ezra Klein  |  July 10, 2009; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Food , Health  
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According to my own personal experience, I agree completely. For the last 2 1/2 months, I've been dieting very strictly (and effectively). The crucual part of my diet is carefully counting my calories and logging everything. This is based on the knowledge of how easy it is to go over your metabolic rate if you're not paying attention. Foods that vaguely seem healthy might not be (calory wise), especially if you're not paying attention to portions. Things that don't seem "that bad" can actually ruin an entire day's work of dieting. If, on the other hand, you know the calorie cost before buying and eating, it makes a huge difference--if you care, at least.

It also helps to know ahead of time to "hedge your losses" when you go out to eat. No matter how healthy you're eating, there are times when you're going to be around bad food and will probably have to eat it (celebrating with friends and family, etc.). For example, I went to the Olive Garden with family recently, and spent sometime looking at their online nutrition menu to see what I could eat that would keep my caloric intake at a reasonable level. I was able to find a dish that I love for only ~600 calories, minestrone soup for ~100 calories, and a single breadstick for ~150 calories. This wasn't an especially light lunch, but if I didn't know all of this ahead of time, I probably would have got a 1000+ calorie dish (most of them are), a few breadsticks (~500+) calories), and many servings of "healthy" salad (~300+ calories). Suddenly, in a single meal, I would have gone over my daily amount.

Posted by: NicholasWarino | July 10, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

It is impressive. It also makes it clear why restaurants are dead-set against labeling: it would kill them, given that they make so much money on side items like sodas and your "second lunch".

I was in Maine over 4th of July, where I discovered O'Naturals, a chain of healthy fast-food places started by the CEO of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. The pea/lemon/herb soup and the balsamic-blue salad were the perfect healthy on-the-go meal: way tastier, to me, than a burger, at a fraction of the calories. It's too bad the downturn hit right as they were planning to expand. I still have hope that someday these places will blanket the landscape the way the Golden Arches do now.

Posted by: csdiego | July 10, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I'm a relatively fit, healthy person who recently started doing daily calorie counting to lose some weight and get back to reasonable eating habits after a prolonged period of developing bad habits.

I'm amazed at how difficult it is to find this simple, basic information -- how many calories in a dish. I would require this for not only every restaurant (with maybe an exception for daily menu specials), but for every recipe book out there. I cook at home most of the time, and I'm frustrated by how few recipes bother to give you calorie information. I end up having to wing it or rely on comparisons with other dishes.

Actually, Ezra, on a related note -- I've started making the ma-po tofu dish you posted at the Prospect fairly often. Any idea how many calories in, say, a cup of that? ;-)

Posted by: tracy2 | July 10, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

I started a diet in mid-February that was just based on calorie-counting and I couldn't agree more. I've lost 56 pounds, and probably the most impactful change I've made is that I almost never go to restaurants that don't have calorie information available -- the exception is if I'm ordering something that I'm pretty sure I can estimate based on the ingredients. And since you brought them up, I have to commend Potbelly for their nutritional information page -- they have a widget that allows you to add and remove things, change sizes or bread type, etc., and live-updates the calorie total. It's almost enough to make up for the fact that they never take my hint that I'm not interested in small talk while my sandwich is in the toaster. I've actually started faking phone calls when I eat there so the people won't ask me if I have any big plans for the weekend.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | July 10, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Not to be too nit-picky, but I noticed that the serving size on your cookie was "standardized to 100 grams" This is common practice in Europe but I've rarely seen it done here. What I want to know is did you weigh your cookie to see if it was, in fact, 100 grams? I don't think most cookies actually weigh that much. It probably was more like 25g, which comes out to 115 calories and 5 grams of fat, hardly a second lunch. Although I agree with you about nutrition labeling in restaurants, this particular argument is somewhat misleading.

However, nutrition labels can often be very misleading in the other direction! For example, a 20 fl. oz. bottle of vitamin water lists the serving size as 8 fl. oz. and makes it seem like there's not that much sugar or calories (only 13g or 50kcal respectively) But in reality there's 2.5 servings in that 20 fl. oz. bottle... even though all that information is there, using a smaller serving size can lead to the mistaken impression that there's not too many calories. And you're probably going to drink the whole bottle and not just 8 fl. oz!

I could give other examples (spray butter stands out in my mind) but regardless I'm not sure nutrition labels on restaurant menus would necessarily avert weight gain. If too many concessions are given in the label law that allow, say, restaurants to label "part" of the dish instead of the whole thing. (No, really, this plate of pasta has only 100 calories if you only eat a tenth of it!) I certainly hope it would put pressure on restaurants to offer more sane serving sizes for their food, however.

Posted by: aawiegel | July 10, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm also a strict calorie counter and will be thrilled when calorie labeling becomes more widespread. Given the number of excellent calorie counting resources on the internet, it is now much easier to determine the calorie content of foods made from scratch at home than it is to determine the content of many mass marketed foods. Perhaps this is a good thing, though, as it keeps me from depending too much on overpriced restaurant food!

Like another comment above, though, I question the caloric content of the cookie you ate. 100 grams is a pretty huge cookie.

Posted by: coreyander | July 10, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

And just think about the ice cream sandwich people have with their meals. Two oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and a healthy serving of ice cream, probably weighs in around 1100-1300 calories!

Posted by: heymontes | July 10, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

This is a lot grayer area than some think. In theory, I'm all for it, because I'm all for information. But really, those who argue for it on the basis that it helps their diet; piles upon piles of NIH studies demonstrate that diets don't work, lifestyle changes do. So much as this is a tool to facilitate information and lifestyle changes, yes, I support it. But those claiming it as a diet-aide aren't convincing anyone from a scientific perspective.

And then there's the eating disorder angle. Some studies are under way on this (I know Columbia has one in the works) as Harvard's dining hall discontinued the labeling out of concern for the student population with eating disorders. The students made some very valid arguments against having the caloric information of food shoved down the throat - so to speak. For those recovering from eating disorders this information is actively harmful to the precarious process of recovery. No one is in saying it shouldn't be available, but a decent sensitivity argument could be made that it doesn't necessarily need to be on the menus.

I'm not even sure where I personally fall on this, but it is sort of an ethical gray area, in part.

Posted by: ThomasEN | July 10, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, Is this blog post an hommage to McNamara and his technicratic approach? No one concerned about carories eats at Burger King. How many calories are there in the Kool Aid they serve at the Washington Post?

Posted by: ChristopherGeorge | July 11, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Almost whenever the subject of calorie labeling for restaurants comes up, I like to dust off an old article from the S.F. Chronicle that shows how difficult it can be to navigate restaurant menus:

"The [Field] poll asked 523 registered voters to answer four seemingly simple questions: Pick out the dishes with the most calories, the fewest calories, the least salt and the most fat from among menu items from Denny's, Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill and McDonald's. ... Just as on the menus, the only information given was the name of the dish.

"By any measure, the respondents flunked. Two-thirds answered all four questions wrong. And no one -- not one single person -- got all four right. The results were the same regardless of age, income, education or political party, according to the poll.


"For the record, only three of 13 Chronicle Food section staffers who took the quiz answered two questions right; seven got one correct answer; and three earned zeroes. No one answered even three of the four questions correctly."


Posted by: meander510 | July 11, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

But if nutrition facts were labeled, would people look at the right facts? What jumps out at me is the 39g of sugar. 39 grams! That's 10 teaspoons -- almost 1/4 cup of sugar in that cookie! That is absolutely insane.

Posted by: mb129 | July 11, 2009 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Why only chain restaurants? What constitutes a chain?

Posted by: staticvars | July 13, 2009 12:51 AM | Report abuse

Quoting from a comment above:

"Not to be too nit-picky, but I noticed that the serving size on your cookie was "standardized to 100 grams" This is common practice in Europe but I've rarely seen it done here. What I want to know is did you weigh your cookie to see if it was, in fact, 100 grams? I don't think most cookies actually weigh that much. It probably was more like 25g, which comes out to 115 calories and 5 grams of fat, hardly a second lunch. Although I agree with you about nutrition labeling in restaurants, this particular argument is somewhat misleading."

I'm afraid that Ezra really did eat 450 calories of cookie. The cookies at Potbelly are clearly labeled '3.5oz' on the wrappers, which is almost exactly 100 grams.

In other words, the cookies are huge, the size of a small plate.

I lost 60 pounds six years ago and have kept it off. Although I've been on just about every diet known to man, what finally did the trick was simple restricting calories.

While restricting calories sounds simple, it is actually quite hard to do. As posters above note - the hardest part isn't hunger - it's not hard to eat 1400 calories a day and not be hungry if you eat healthfully - the hardest part of is finding out how many calories are in everything and tracking them. While when you are in the strictest part of the diet you can simply avoid eating anything you haven't prepared yourself, but eventually you are going to have to eat a meal out.

You'd be surprised how many calories are in menu items - even those that 'sound' healthy. I once got stuck at a Panera Bread with colleagues and ordered a sandwich which sounded healthy. When I looked it up when I got home, I found out it had 800 calories - half the calories I should be eating in an entire day.

My family lives in NYC, and I love the relief of not having to either guess or do research on my Blackberry before I can order anything. I wish we had those laws here in DC. And honestly, I don't understand why anyone outside the restaurant industry wouldn't want that to happen. Unless you are worried that you are going to look like a glutton when your friends hear you order the item that clearly states it contains 1100 calories. But maybe that is exactly the reason why some people don't want the labeling on the menu.

Posted by: DCeconomist | July 14, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

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