Can Calorie Counts on Menus Lead to Healthy Decision Making?
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A new law requiring the inclusion of calorie counts on menus in Ontario, Canada, has received mixed reviews since it came into effect on January 1st of this year. Supporters claim that laws regarding calorie labeling will help consumers make better health and dietary choices, while detractors say that forced calorie labels can be damaging to consumers and don’t have a significant impact in the fight against obesity.

 

The Healthy Menu Choices Act, which was first passed in 2015, requires all food-service chains with 20 or more locations in the province to post the number of calories of each food and drink item that they sell. This includes movie theatres, restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores. Calories must be included on menus, print forms of advertisements, and mobile apps. Menu boards are also required to display a statement regarding the recommended daily caloric intake for both adults and children. On average, adults need between 2000-2500 calories per day while children need 1,600-2000 calories per day, depending on age; of course, individual caloric needs vary based on a number of factors. Elementary and secondary school cafeterias, hospital cafeterias, and federally-regulated planes and trains are exempt from the Healthy Menu Choices Act, as are jails, day cares, retirement homes vending machines, and food services that operate less than 60 days a year (such as pop-ups).

 

The intention of this law is reportedly to combat the growing obesity epidemic and encourage the purchase of healthy foods—including healthy fast food—and the adoption of balanced diets. The obesity rates in Ontario are above the national average of roughly 20%, with more than 29% of the population classified as obese. Ontario is, so far, the only province to introduce such a law, though others, including Quebec and Nova Scotia, have expressed interest in implementing their own. A University of Toronto study conducted in 2014 suggested that roughly 75% of Canadians wanted to see nutritional information on their menus.

 

Similar laws are set to go into effect in most of the US beginning in May. Like Ontario’s law, the US’s rules—which were written by the US Food and Drug Administration—apply only to restaurants with 20 or more locations. Unlike the Healthy Menu Choices Act, however, these labeling laws will also require items in vending machines, and have exceptions for condiments, daily specials, and limited-time offers that will be available for 90 days or less.

 

Whether or not these laws will truly benefit consumers over time remains to be seen, but in the meantime they do present some challenges to businesses. Menus and advertising must be re-designed and re-printed to incorporate calorie counts, which can be costly, especially for smaller chains. Additionally, accurately calculating the number of calories in an item can be difficult—for example, restaurants must take into account the impact that ice has on the calories of a drink. The testing required to properly calculate calories can be very expensive, and will need to be done for each and every new menu item in the future, which further drives up costs. Restaurants that fail to follow Ontario’s Healthy Menu Choices Act can be hit with hefty fines.

 

Despite these challenges, calorie listings on menus are here to stay, it seems, and it’s now up to businesses to offer choices in-line with customers’ changing decision making, preferences, and diets.

 

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