Fast-food chains across Ontario will soon display the number of calories for each menu item, but a public health advocate says the labelling could actually lead women to make unhealthy decisions.

The rules, which come into effect Jan. 1, 2017, are part of the government's attempt to curb obesity and encourage healthier eating.

Along with the calorie information, chain restaurants will have to display a "context statement" meant to help consumers better understand the calorie count. The statement will say adults require 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day, but that individual calorie needs vary. 

Bill Jeffery, executive director of the Centre for Health Science and Law, believes that number is far too high, especially for women.

It's certainly higher than what Health Canada recommends. The agency suggests women aged 31-50 with a low level of activity consume 1,800 calories a day.

Men in the same category should consume about 2,350 calories a day.

"If people really pay attention to it, it has the potential to create an additional obesity epidemic in Ontario by nudging people to consume more calories," said Jeffery, who also objects to the fact the government hired a marketing agency with food-industry ties to run the consultations that led to the new menu information.

David Jensen, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, which is in charge of the menu labelling, said the recommended calorie intake is the result of "extensive consultations" and reviews.

He said the ministry is reviewing comments about the context statement, but he didn't say whether that means it could change.

Calories on Menus

Items on the breakfast menu, including the calories, are posted at a McDonald's restaurant in New York. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Women more likely to read nutrition labels

Caloric needs vary depending on a person's age, sex, body size and level of physical activity. 

Jeffery said recommending up to an extra 600 calories a day for women could make a huge difference. Even an extra 200 calories per day can contribute to unhealthy weight gain, he said.

And Jeffery said the majority of people who read nutrition information on food labels and menus are women.

That's true, according to David Hammond, an associate professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

He has researched the effectiveness of menu labelling and says most people's eyes glaze over when they read the nutrition facts on food packaging, but "women are more likely to use nutrition information than men in general."

The ministry acknowledges that the benefit of adding calorie information to menus isn't proven.

"Some studies suggest there's little or no benefit when it's in places like McDonalds," Jensen said. "But other studies show there is a modest impact for sit-down restaurants or cafeterias."

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Many people's eyes glaze over when they read nutrition labels, but both Jeffery and Hammond say women are more likely than men to read this kind of health information. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Calorie range too broad, dietitians say

On Aug. 4, Dietitians of Canada, the Ontario Public Health Association and the Ontario Society of Nutrition sent a letter to Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins that says the proposed calorie range "would not achieve the intended purpose of enhancing consumers' ability to appropriately use the contextual statement to make informed menu choices."

They recommended the province use 2,000 calories in the context statement — without including a range, which they said could lead to confusion.

The province also decided to leave sodium levels off the menu labelling, a decision that Dietitians of Canada and Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's chief medical officer of health, want the government to reconsider.

The government sees posting the calorie information as a first step, "since calorie intake is the major determinant of weight," Jensen said.

He said the government will continue to research whether it should require more information on menus.

Calorie counting 'outdated'

Kate Comeau, a dietitian and spokeswoman for Dietitians of Canada, said despite the calorie range issues raised by Jeffery, healthy eating is not as simple as counting calories.

"Maybe that number [in the context statement] should be adjusted, but I'm not sure that's going to make the value of that number completely null and void," she said.

Comeau said traditionally it's been understood that a person who consumes 500 extra calories a day will gain a pound a week. But she said that guideline comes with "a huge asterisk" because everyone's calorie needs are different.

"If I think of the athletes in Rio, their calorie needs are much higher because of the training they're doing, versus me sitting at a desk all day."

She said even though calorie counting is a bit "outdated," the menu labels will help.

"I don't think the intention was to add up your Big Mac and your milkshake to get to the 1,800-calorie mark," Comeau said. "But if you were to choose a salad and it has 1,800 calories, and you need 1,800 calories in a day, you might say, 'Oh wait a second, that doesn't make sense.'"

She said instead of just calorie counts or sodium information on fast-food menus, there's a need for better health education overall so people can make better choices.

Marketing firm ran consultations

Jeffery said he suspects the new labels are industry-friendly because a marketing firm ran the consultations.

Two agencies were involved in the process: BBDO and FleishmanHillard. BBDO counts Quaker, PepsiCo Canada and Doritos Canada among its clients. FleishmanHillard Canada is a public relations and marketing company with an international branch that has Cadbury as a client.

HERSHEY-M&A/MONDELEZ INTL

One of marketing agency FleishmanHillard's international clients is Cadbury, the chocolate candy company. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

The government says it contracted FleishmanHillard through a master contract it has with BBDO, and then FleishmanHillard was paid $80,000 to run a series of meetings on the menu labelling in 2013.

The company planned six meetings, chose who would attend and prepared a final report.

"As a vendor of record with the Ontario government, FleishmanHillard underwent a rigorous selection process and was required to sign a conflict of interest statement," Jensen said.

He said​ the groups invited to the consultations were from both the food industry and public health sectors.

None of the groups involved in the consultations made presentations, he said. Instead, they participated in small group discussions related to menu labelling.

Jeffery, however, says this was a conflict of interest.

"I disagree profoundly with having a candy advertising company in charge of this."

FleishmanHillard did not directly address the issue, saying to CBC, "It's our understanding that the government is responding to your inquiries."

BBDO did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.