Do Calorie Counts on Menus Alter Food Choices?

Healthcare spending on obesity has nearly doubled in the last 10 years as more and more Americans are becoming overweight. In an effort to curb this spending and improve public health, health care experts and government officials have teamed up to pass legislation that requires chain restaurants (with more than 20 restaurants under the same name) to post calorie counts on their menus. But have these calorie counts been effective at influencing consumer behavior?

In July 2008, New York City became the first city to enact a law requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts alongside menu items--and since that time, a handful of other cities including Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon have joined in with calorie count legislation. In 2011, the entire state of California will see this law go into effect in its chains.

The idea behind the legislation is to provide greater transparency for consumers so that they can make healthier choices.

Proponents of the legislation say the information on menu labeling is needed now more than ever. Recent reports show that two-thirds of Americans are overweight--with the average citizen weighing in at 23 pounds over doctor-recommended healthy weight.

Where are all of these excess calories coming from? According to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC, Americans eat about one-third of their calories at restaurants.

When asked to guess on calorie counts, research shows that most people can't guess how many calories are in a menu item and, when they do guess, they often underestimate.

"People have a right to know what's in their food so they can make their own choices," says Wootan.

In order to find out if the calorie count labeling was working, professors at New York University and Yale University tracked 1,156 adult customers in poor neighborhoods of New York City (where there are high rates of obesity and diabetes) at four fast-food chains--McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The researchers found about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards; 28 percent of those who noticed the calorie counts said the information had influenced their ordering; and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts after this information was reported by participants, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than before the menu labeling law went into effect.

In another study conducted by food service consultants Technomic, Inc. (one month after the menu labeling law went into effect in New York City), 299 New York City adults participated in an online survey giving their reaction to calorie count disclosure on menus. Eighty-six percent of the participants said they thought that menu labeling was a positive move, and 82 percent said that the calorie count disclosure was affecting what they ordered.

In this same survey, when given the calorie counts, 97 percent of the participants said the calories were higher than they expected.

Here is a look at some chain restaurant calorie counts revealed by the menu labeling law:

Starbucks Blueberry Scone - 469 calories

Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino w/ whip - 430 calories

McDonald's Big Mac - 540 calories

McDonald's French Fries (large) - 500 calories

Au Bon Pain Chicken Caesar Wrap - 590 calories

Au Bon Pain Muesli - 340 calories

KFC Original Recipe Chicken Breast - 400 calories

KFC Hot and Spicy Chicken Drumstick - 175 calories

While calorie count disclosure on menus may affect some people's food choices, experts have noted that in poor neighborhoods customers may be more concerned with immediate food costs than long-term health costs. Even though it is likely that the price tag (rather than the calorie count) is driving food choices in some demographics, proponents of the menu legislation are still hopeful that calorie counts will help people think twice when ordering and steer them toward making healthier choices.


Agarawal, K. NY Calorie Law May Not Alter Food Choices. Oct. 7, 2009. Accessed Dec. 11, 2009.

A recipe for controversy. Los Angeles Times. Aug. 10, 2009. Accessed Dec. 14, 2009.

Calorie Counts on Menus is Influencing Consumer Benavior, says Technomic. Feb. 8, 2009. Accessed Dec. 14, 2009.

Hartocollis, A. Calorie Postings Don't Change Habits, Study Finds. New York Times. Oct. 6, 2009. Accesses Dec. 11, 2009.

Menu Calorie Counts Can Alter Food Choices. Associated Press. Oct. 7, 2009. Accessed Dec. 11, 2009.

Springen, K. Full Disclosure. Nov. 14, 2008. Accessed Dec. 11, 2009.

Walters, C. Does Posting Calorie Counts on Menus Sway Consumers? Oct. 6, 2009. Accessed Dec. 14, 2009.