The health care reform bill in the US is so weighty that many people haven’t yet twigged that it contains a significant provision for those concerned about a healthy food supply and obesity. The provision would require anyone who operates chain restaurants or vending machines with more than 20 locations to provide a calorie count for each standard menu item.

Croakey’s North American correspondent, Dr Lesley Russell, has been investigating the history of calorie-counting menus, while a local obesity policy expert, Jane Martin, looks at whether such an option might be useful in Australia.

Lesley Russell writes:

“In 2006, in a controversial move in response to rising obesity rates, New York City’s Health Department amended the city health code to  require the posting of calorie counts by chain restaurants on menus,
menu boards, and item tags.

This move was based on the following key facts:

*nearly one-third of Americans report that they are trying to lose weight;

*people are unaware of the calorie content of food, and when asked to
estimate the number of calories in food, they greatly underestimate
them; and

*consumers who were provided calorie information were much less likely
to choose the higher-calorie items.

Many fast-food chains make nutrition information available, but not in places or at times when consumers can easily use it when they buy their food. Most often, the information is available for download on Web sites.

According to the company, McDonald’s Web site nutrition page receives approximately 2,000 visitors per day, but since McDonald’s serves more than fifty million people per day, this suggests that only about one in 25,000 customers obtain nutritional information from the Internet.

The law was finally implemented, after a series of tough legal battles with the restaurant industry, in July 2008.  The system has since  become a model for similar rules intended to combat obesity and  promote good nutrition being implemented in California, other parts of  New York state, the cities of Seattle and Portland, and elsewhere.

Now some of the early findings about the success or otherwise of the New York initiative are available, in a paper (sub or pay per view only) published recently in Health Affairs.

The study compared patrons of fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority New York City communities with those in nearby Newark, NJ, a city which had not introduced menu labeling. About half of the New York respondents reported noticing calorie information, but only a  quarter of these reported that the information influenced their food  choices. However the study found that even those who indicated that  the calorie information influenced their food choices did not actually purchase fewer calories.

Last week New York City health officials delivered a more upbeat  assessment of their own, saying that New Yorkers ordered fewer calories at four chains – Au Bon Pain, KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks – after the law went into effect. There was a significant increase in calories ordered at Subway, which researchers attributed to a continuing $5 special on foot-long sandwiches which has tripled demand for them.

The results are good enough to cause policy-makers to think that calorie labeling might be one component of a multi-faceted plan to  tackle obesity.  Certainly that’s what US lawmakers think.

Tucked away in the 1990-page health care reform bill that passed the  House of Representatives last Saturday night is a provision that will require anyone who operates chain restaurants with more than 20 locations to provide a calorie count for each standard menu item.  In addition, anyone who owns or operates 20 or more vending machines would have to provide a sign in close proximity to each item of food or the selection button that includes a clear statement about the number of calories the item contains.

The National Restaurant Association supports the labeling  requirements; the National Automatic Merchandising Association is less enthusiastic.  We assume that the Republicans, still complaining about  the size of the bill, did not read it and therefore don’t know about  this provision, otherwise we would surely have heard.”

• Dr Lesley Russell is the Menzies Foundation Fellow at the Menzies  Center for Health Policy, University of Sydney/ Australian National  University and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.  She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC.

Should Australia require calorie-counting menus? Jane Martin, a Senior Policy Adviser to the Obesity Policy Coalition, writes:

“This is something the Obesity Policy Coalition supports. This is yet another study showing, like restrictions on junk food advertising, that an initiative with a modest effect can have a large impact on a population.

This study is an excellent assessment of the situation.  Currently in Australia, even if there is information given about meals in chain restaurants, it is on websites or on the packaging of the meal that you order (McDonald’s), therefore people are not making informed decisions at the point of purchase.  If there was a system such as in New York, together with an education campaign, the potential impacts could be large.

This is definitely something that should be on the table here, as part of a comprehensive approach.”

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