Starbucks is staying one step ahead of the law, so to speak. Starting this week, the java giant began posting calorie counts on all its menus nationwide, in advance of federal regulations that will soon require any restaurant chain with more than 20 locations to do the same.
McDonald’s began posting calories on its menus across the country last year; smaller chains, like the lunchtime staple Panera, have hopped on board too. So in a week of big drama (landmark Supreme Court rulings, Wendy Davis, Edward Snowden’s fugitive globetrotting, new immigration bill), Starbucks’s follow-the-leaders-but-still-kind-of-lead move isn’t exactly front-page news. But still: A 20-ounce Starbucks Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino has 120 more calories than a Big Mac.
But even before the Food and Drug Administration steps in with a nationwide calorie-count mandate, public health experts and the chattering classes are already worried that simply confronting people with the amount of calories they’re on the cusp of consuming as they stare hungrily at the menu board may not be enough to stem our national obesity epidemic.
In his New York Times column last week, “Don’t Count on Calorie Counts,” Frank Bruni cites studies that suggest when it comes to calorie counts, people seem as oblivious as a 16-year-old with an iPhone is to a yield sign.
Because, you see, cities like New York and Philadelphia have required calorie counts for a few years now, so public health researchers have had time to study how they worked.
As Bruni reports, “Brian Elbel, a population-health expert at New York University’s school of medicine, examined fast-food receipts from four chains in New York both before the city law went into effect and after, to see if customers were altering their orders to reduce the calories they consumed per visit to the restaurants. He found no meaningful difference, and his subsequent research in Philadelphia, which in 2010 implemented a mandate like New York’s, echoes and bolsters that conclusion.”
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing big is happening for a large group of people,” Elbel told the columnist.
A study commissioned by New York City found more heartening results in terms of labeling calories on menus, but only slightly so. At three out of 11 restaurant chains whose receipts were examined both before calorie counts were posted and then after, customers seem to have responded to the information by reducing their calorie consumption (the chains were Au Bon Pain, KFC and McDonald’s). But at the other seven, there was no difference, and at Subway, calorie consumption increased.
None of this is encouraging, to be sure, but then again, does anyone believe there’s a single magic solution for a public health crisis as complicated as the obesity epidemic?
Bruni frames his column with his own experience at a local deli chain, where he admits, despite the posted calorie counts, that he regularly opts for the chicken salad over the tuna salad despite the fact that he’s now well aware it trumps the tuna by more than 200 calories.
But that’s his choice. And that’s one of the things calorie counts allow for: informed choice. Because we all make certain shorthand assumptions when we order food, itself one of those everyday decisions that could be (nay, has been) parsed by an army of marketers, researchers and data analysts.
To wit, I semi-regularly eat at Panera, where I’ve long been partial to the Sierra Turkey on Asiago Cheese Focaccia. I know the calorie counts have been posted for a while now (for heaven’s sake, I write about such things), yet I, too, have largely ignored them.
But for some reason, last week, standing in line, I noticed something. That sandwich that I always dimly thought of as “healthy” (because, you know, it’s turkey after all)? 920 calories. For 130 more calories, I could have had a Big Mac and a side of large fries.
I chose the Smoked Turkey Breast on Country Bread instead.
Even at McDonald’s, it turns out that if you opt for one of those new McWraps with crispy chicken and ranch (you know, those McWraps that appear so fresh and healthy in the photos, brimming with lettuce and tomato)—yep, you guessed it: The “healthy” choice clocks in at 580 calories, 30 more than a Big Mac.
If Big Macs are our yardstick, how about the it’s-got-to-be-healthy-with-a-name-like-that Green Goddess Wedge Salad from Applebees: 560 calories, with 53 grams of fat. (Almost twice the fat of a Big Mac.)
And back to Starbucks, those blueberry scones: 460 calories; 22 grams of fat.
We could go on and on, but the point is: Do you really want to know?