Calorie counts mandated under health reform

Chains with 20 or more locations must now post calorie counts on their menus.

With the health reform bill now law, folks have begun poring over it to find its Easter Eggs, those hidden commands that hide something important behind them.

They found a good one.

As the Center for Science in the Public Interest notes (with great joy) chains with 20 or more locations must now post calorie counts on their menus. (An example from the CSPI is at right.) The group has been campaigning for this since 2003.

I have discussed this topic a few times and we don't really want to know. Scientific results from displaying the data are mixed.

A study in New York City found people bought 50 fewer calories, on average, when this data was made clearly available. A Stanford study, released this year, showed a 6% reduction in calories purchased when the data was in plain sight.

But some of the data is surprising, as Michael Pollan noted to The Washington Post recently. If you know that salad, with crispy chicken and dressing, has more calories than the Big Mac, I'll have some health righteousness with my burger, thanks.

As I reported in January, a University of Washington study found parents eager to police their kids' calorie intake, when given the data, although their own behavior did not change.

And many restaurants have gotten good at hiding fat in free side dishes, as I noted at SmartPlanet. When the sides are added, restaurant calorie counts can be 18% higher than advertised.

Something else to consider. This requirement is waived for non-chain restaurants, or chains with fewer than 20 stores. So places like my locavore pub, Leons Full Service, are exempt. (Try the bacon in a glass with peanut butter.)

Same that fine local soul food chain, This is It!. If you really hate this regulation make these two guys your big brothers, at least until they get 14 more locations.

For the rest, this little experiment in social engineering is going mass market.

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