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July 17, 2007 / Tony

Should restaurants be forced to provide caloric information?

The NY Times has an article about New York’s new law requiring chain restaurants to provide caloric information about their dishes.  The impetus behind this law (and similar laws pending in other states) is the fact that people just don’t know what they’re getting.  The article cites these examples: 

The chicken Caesar salad at Chili’s is one of those items that might appear to be a healthier choice, but brace yourself: it contains 1,010 calories and 76 grams of fat, while the sirloin has 540 calories and 42 grams of fat (not counting side dishes).

Nor is a tuna sandwich the low-calorie choice at Subway: it has 530 calories, significantly more than the roast beef sandwich, which has 290. And a chai latte almost always has 100 more calories than a cappuccino of the same size prepared with the same kind of milk.

While it is probably expected that the average diner would have trouble accurately approximating the caloric content of a dish, even dieticians have trouble:

A study. . . found that dietitians consistently underestimated the calorie content of restaurant food, figuring that a typical meal of hamburger and onion rings in a sit-down restaurant would have 865 calories. It had 1,550.

Such laws are apparently very popular with the public.  83% of respondents in one poll said they favored having nutritional information in restaurants. 

Of course, laws like this are aimed at combating obesity.  But does it work?  I recommend this article by Sandy Szwarc.  Ultimately, law such as this (which would be costly) should be judged on their efficacy in preventing the harm they purport to be helping.  If they don’t help, they should not be in existence.  Also, the article states that only 10 to 20% of diners would actually choose a lower calorie option if presented with the information.  If so, regardless of whether or not cutting calories is an effective way to achieve weight loss, is it really an effective public health measure?  Less than 1/5 of persons are actually using the information.  Seems a little bit sketchy to me. 

I found one other interesting tidbit in the article.  Chain restaurants make up only about 10% of the restaurants (in the country, I assume) but they serve an astonishing 67% of the food people eat when eating out.  Imagine the volume that those chain restaurants must do (I can, I’ve worked for a few) to provide that amount of the food people eat while out. 

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