Although transparent, calorie counts on menus may worsen, not improve health

In the past, if you were curious about how many calories were in your meal at a fast food or chain restaurant, you had to search for a pamphlet or on the establishment’s website. Now, it is becoming more and more common that calorie counts are listed right on the menus, forcing you to take notice while you think about what to order. In November 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that establishments with 20 or more locations that sell prepared foods will have to post calorie counts in plain sight for customers to see, “clearly and conspicuously” (Boston Globe, “New FDA rules will put calorie counts on menus,” 12.01.14). Not only does this mean that places like Burger King or Panera Bread will have calorie counts on display, but convenience stores and grocery stores with prepared foods will have to show calorie counts as well. Even amusement parks and vending machines will have calorie counts shown.

Some may argue that this development promotes eating disorders or that people ordering unhealthy food don’t care much about calories anyway. It’s also possible that establishments that didn’t post calorie counts previously will lose some business due to their customers’ newfound awareness. However, I believe that this information will do a lot of good for people’s health and peace of mind.

Many people that eat at fast food restaurants frequently do so because of the low prices or out of convenience. The greasy, fried food tastes good, fills you up and only costs a few dollars. It would be unrealistic to do away with fast food restaurants altogether because they really do serve as an important way to easily get food, but putting calorie counts in plain sight could encourage those who do eat at fast food restaurants often to make healthier choices. More and more fast food and fast casual chains are incorporating healthier items salads. fruit and other foods into their menus crafted with lower calories. Chain restaurants like Applebee’s are creating menus that fit a certain calorie budget. For example, Applebee’s has a new “Pub Diet” menu section that is supposed to be under 600 calories, and Red Lobster’s menu contains the “Lighthouse” section that is coordinated with FDA-recommended daily nutritional values. These could gain popularity when the unhealthiness of some other items is emphasized. Also, just the fact that people are paying attention to the number of calories in their food will likely inspire fast food places to continue to add healthy options.

When people go to restaurants like Panera or Chipotle, they may think they are ordering something healthy but end up consuming way more calories than they intended to. Many places offer things that sound nutritious and not too high in calories when in reality, they are much worse than they seem. People who are not as knowledgeable about food but want to maintain a healthy lifestyle often order these things, sabotaging their goals. Knowing the number of calories in a meal when eating out will help people to make choices that actually are healthy.

While the FDA’s decision is a step in the right direction, the rules are shaped so that they leave out many areas where people could still make unhealthy decisions. The ruling excludes foods that are intended to be eaten by more than one person or to be eaten over a longer period of time. For example, an item from a salad bar will have its calorie count posted, but if they same item is sold in a large container, it will not. It’s understandable that it would be really bad for a store’s business if an item had a thousand calorie label, but it means that people will continue to be less educated about the food they are buying.

Another loophole is the regulation that the law excuses “food served on forms of transportation” (Boston Globe, “New FDA rules will put calorie counts on menus,” 12.01.14). This means that calorie counts will not be displayed on prepared foods served on planes or trains. In this context, I think including calorie counts would be really helpful. Not many airlines serve meals anymore unless you’re in first class, but they do have snacks or snack boxes for a fee. When your choices are limited on a train or plane, it would be helpful to understand what the healthier options are. This rule also applies to food trucks, which I find illogical because food trucks are often where you can find the most indulgent, high-calorie offerings like an array of fried foods, some probably making you worse off than a McDonald’s meal would.

Being forced to display calorie counts on their menus imposes a large burden on fast food and chain restaurants. Most of these establishments have hundreds of variations on their menu items, making it arduous and expensive to calculate the calories for all of their options. Despite this difficulty, making calorie counts readily available will be very beneficial for Americans as a whole. It will motivate those who don’t already to eat healthily, increase nutritious options on restaurant menus and make it easier for healthy-minded people to stay on track, decreasing our country’s health issues overall.


—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

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