Health

How calorie counts on chain restaurant menus 'can have a lasting impact'

Calorie counts on chain restaurant menus may surprise some consumers into changing their choices, but the longer-term benefit may be from companies improving their recipes, a public health expert says.

Dishing on calories gets a third of consumers to change their order

Menu boards are useful in a relative sense, as they allow consumers to compare whether one product has double the calories of another. (Sonya Varma/CBC)

Calorie counts on chain restaurant menus may surprise some consumers into changing their choices, but the longer-term benefit may be from companies improving their recipes, a public health expert says.

As of Jan. 1, new regulations in Ontario require restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie information for food and drink items on menu boards, take-out flyers and apps. Some chains have also introduced the changes across the country, said Dr. Eric Hoskins, Ontario's health minister.

"Transparency and issues like calorie counts, I think it's important," Hoskins said. "I think it's a level of accountability that we can provide to consumers which will be appreciated."

New York City has required similar labels since 2008.

The calorie counts can hit home for consumers, said David Hammond, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ont.

Consumers are interested

"On the topic of informing people, it's very effective and most consumers, about 90 per cent, are interested," Hammond said. "But it's really about a third of us that actually use that information to change what we order."

Given the public health challenge posed by obesity and how we now spend about a third of our food dollar outside the home, Hammond welcomes the at-a-glance indicator.

Pizza Nova president Domenic Primucci said the company hasn't altered the recipe to lower calorie counts. (Melanie Glanz/CBC)

"When you have to put those numbers up on your menu or your menu board, a lot of companies look at those numbers and decide to reformulate," Hammond said. "So that can have a lasting impact and it doesn't even necessarily require us as individuals to change. If they reduce the fat or the calories in what we're being offered, that can have a lasting impact."

Pizza recipe unchanged

Pizza Nova president Domenic Primucci said the chain hasn't altered its recipes.

"We didn't want to change our taste …to make the calorie count slightly less," Primucci said. "We feel confident in our recipe and in our product, that we give a great product as it is."

So far, Primucci said customers haven't been asking more questions to the company's call centre about the change.

At a food court at the University of Waterloo, Varshin Sri said the calorie counts won't factor into his eating choices.

But he also works at a pizza shop and sees an impact there. "I think it depends on the person," Sri said. "We have a lot of fried stuff there, so they go from fried to baked stuff. It adds like 200 calories just by frying it."

From an individual perspective, the calorie counts will likely have the biggest bang off the top, Hammond says.

"The biggest criticism is that we're only communicating calories. It doesn't tell us much else about the nutrition profile of that item," he said.

CBC News asked Canadians to share stories and photos of how the new listings are making them re-think their food choices — the responses varied. 

"This is a wonderful start for the average person, but what about those who rely on carbohydrate and fibre details to maintain their health," said Rima Chowdhury 

 Douglas Smith said he has been eating out at mostly fast-food outlets for the past two years. 

"Since beginning that eating regimen I have gained 30 lbs!" Smith said. I never went overboard but somehow I became a Fat Man. Now on a diet of food prepared at home I have already lost 8 lbs in four weeks! I will never go the fast-food route again in my life. I love their food but it's just not worth it."

It's not just about calories

People often make decisions about what to eat based on rules of thumb, some based on intuition and some based on marketing. "A lot of them are incorrect," he said. 

Hammond said the menu boards are useful in a relative sense, as they allow consumers to compare whether one product has double the calories of another.

Hammond's main tip for improving your diet when eating out? Drink less sugar and fewer calories. "We need to be eating our fruit rather than sucking it through a straw."

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