How many calories in that fast-food meal? Ontario menu labelling legislation takes effect Jan. 1

Restaurant-goers in Ontario are going to notice a little extra something on some menus as of Jan. 1: calorie counts.

But will restaurant-goers make healthier choices?

Legislation requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to clearly display caloric information for all food and drink items 2:03

Restaurant-goers in Ontario are going to notice a little extra something on some menus as of Jan. 1: calorie counts.

Legislation that comes into effect Sunday under the Healthy Menu Choices Act, 2015 requires that all restaurants with 20 or more locations must clearly display the caloric information for any food and drink items.

Not only will the information have to be on menus, but it will also need to be clearly displayed on menu boards and even on restaurant apps. Hospitals, schools, daycares and correctional institutions are exempt. 

The Heart and Stroke Foundation supports the initiative, believing that providing people with more information helps them make better choices.

"Menu labelling is one small thing that empowers parents and empowers Ontarians to take control of the choices that they make when they're having lunch or dinner at a restaurant," said Joe Belfontaine, executive director of the Ontario branch of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Certainly it's not the end-all or be-all, but it's an important tool in the toolbox.- Joe Belfontaine

"Certainly it's not the end-all or be-all, but it's an important tool in the toolbox." 

Although Ontario is the first province in the country to require nutritional labelling at restaurants, Belfontaine said that he hopes other provinces will follow suit.

Will it make a difference?

Whether including caloric counts will have any lasting health benefits, however, is questionable.

New York City has had food labelling requirements at restaurants since 2008. Since then, researchers have attempted to ascertain whether it's made a difference to the city's population.

Calories of each food item appear on a McDonald's drive-thru menu in New York City. The city made it mandatory for restaurants to display nutritional information since 2008. (Associated Press)

A 2012 study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded posting calories on foods had no direct impact on what foods people chose to buy. Over time, it appeared that people simply ignored the labelling altogether.

A more recent study from Tulane University suggested that the New York City mandate "plausibly reduced the obesity rate by 2.5 percentage points."

Dr. Sean Wharton, an internal medicine specialist who also runs a weight management and diabetes clinic in Toronto, believes that the move is a positive one by the government, particularly for those who are paying close attention to their nutrition. However, it's likely a different story for the general population.

Ontarians heading to a food court will now see calories on some menu boards. (Grande Prairie Mall)

"From an overall population level, I'm not so sure it'll have the big impact that we're actually looking for," Wharton said.

"I don't think it's going to decrease weight from a population basis, but I think an informed consumer is better at making choices and making judgements."

Informed decisions

Wharton also noted that data supporting the idea of health benefits from such labelling is weak. As well, he said, no studies have found that nutrition intake is any better in a general population when such measures are undertaken.

While the evidence may be slim for a smaller waistline associated with menu labelling, experts believe that it's important that people make informed decisions.

"I think it's important for consumers to have choice," Belfontaine said. "I think it's important for consumers to have the right information."

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