Ignore the claims that easy-to-see calorie counts don't make an impact on consumers' food choices. It's too soon to tell.
A recent study from Carnegie Mellon University looked at the behaviors of 1,121 adults buying lunch at two McDonald's locations in New York City. Each restaurant, as is the case with most McDonald's, prominently displayed the calorie counts of all menu items.
Diners were provided information about the recommended number of calories they should consume each day or were given guidelines for per-meal calorie intake. But researchers noted, neither group went on to order a healthier item from the menu.
Julie Downs, the study's lead author, noted: "There have been high hopes that menu labeling could be a key tool to help combat high obesity levels in this country, and many people do appreciate having that information available. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much, even when we give consumers what policymakers thought might help: some guidance for how many calories they should be eating."
That's a big conclusion to make about a method of nutrition awareness-building that has only been in effect in select restaurants for about a year.
Just because a cadre of bloggers, policy wonks and headline writers glommed on to the idea that the sole purpose of making nutrition information readily available to consumers is to dissuade them from eating doesn't mean the information isn't important.
Easy-to-see-and-read calorie counts are a lifeline to people who have already been diagnosed as overweight and are working on a long-term eating plan. Calorie labels matter greatly to those who have already consulted a doctor and nutritionist -- such as the 19 million people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes -- and know exactly what and how much they're supposed to eat every day to maintain a healthy balance.
For them and others who are actively watching their food intake, the key to maintaining a healthy weight over a lifetime is not about fad diets or gimmicks. It's about how to eat healthfully enough on the whole so that you can splurge once in a while and not have to fret about it impacting your waistline or heart.
When people who know how much they should be consuming in a given day walk into a Starbucks and look into the pastry cabinet, they can make finely tuned calculations: Do I treat myself because I know I'm having healthy lunches and dinners all week? Or do I choose something with fewer calories because I indulged myself yesterday? If so, what is that healthier choice?
Starbucks consumers get to see calorie counts posted near each of their food items and can find at the register nutrition information booklets with extensive details on almost all food and drinks.
It's a place where choices can be made.
The same is true about McDonald's. I visit the Golden Arches at times when I can treat myself to a Big Mac and fries. On those days, I note the calories so I can make adjustments in the rest of my day and week -- and I'm grateful the counts are on the board so I don't have to go hunting them down on the corporate website (though, thankfully, almost every major restaurant provides this information for those who seek it out).
High-calorie treats are part of our culture -- they're now as American as deep-fried Snickers bars at the county fair and our raging obesity epidemic.
And we need many tools to address such a multifaceted health puzzle.
The most bothersome thing about researching this new effort in a pass/fail manner is that it tends to confirm human nature. In the Carnegie Mellon study, the McDonald's customers stopped there for treat food and weren't dissuaded from it by extra information.
And such studies fail to acknowledge that just as it took many decades for Americans' nutritional habits to change, it will also take decades for awareness-raising tools such as calorie counts to make an impact on a population raised on giving itself permission to throw calorie caution to the wind.
Awareness precedes both prevention and reduction. Let calorie counts become as ubiquitous as supersize sugary drinks and then we can have a fair conversation about measuring effectiveness.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist.