How many calories are in your meal?

Karol Collymore

It wasn't that long ago that when Americans went to the grocery store to pick up, say, a box of Wheat Thins, we had no idea what was in them.  That box could have been filled with cat poop covered in caramel and none of us would have any idea. 

In 1990, that all changed.  The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act required that all packaged food bear nutrition labeling.  Can you imagine shopping without it now?  I know that I can't.  I can hardly buy a thing in a box or wrapper that I haven't checked the calorie or fat content of first.  Studies from the FDA prove that this is the case for most of us.  Nutrition labeling was never about controlling what American's consumed, but about our right to know what we were putting in our bodies. 

Here we are, almost 20 years later, and State Representative Tina Kotek would like to see similar rules apply to chain restaurants in Oregon.  Tina's menu labeling bill says that all restaurants with 10 or more locations nationwide would have to list calories on their menus.  Other nutritional information would be made available, upon request, before purchase.  Before is the key word.  How can you make a reasonable decision about what you eat if you know the calories after you've hosed down a Applebee's sampler?  Menu labeling only works when consumers can see the information before they've made a decision. 

Tina's having a hard time getting traction on this one.  Why?  The Oregon Restaurant Association is putting up a serious fight and as they've made clear, this is their only fight this session.  Even though 70% of Oregonians support having nutritional information on menu items, some of our elected leaders are having a hard time supporting this.  Oneof the arguments is that with bad economic times, the bill adds strain to smalll business owners.  Well wouldn't you know, fast food is one of the few industries that are showing strong growth.  Subway - a chain that already uses menu labeling - led the limited-service sandwich category in sales, holding on to 43% of the market. 

Another argument is the burden to restaurants.  This bill strikes the right balance between the consumer’s right to know and the business needs of restaurants. Most chain restaurants centralize menu development, nutrition analysis, and menu printing, so company headquarters would incur the costs, not the franchises. In terms of nutrition analysis, most of the restaurants that would be affected
by this legislation already provide it to customers in pamphlets or on their websites so they wouldn’t incur any new costs for analyzing their products. And for the minority of restaurants that haven’t done this yet, there’s nutrition analysis software they can buy for a one-time fee of $500.

This bill isn't a miracle cure.  We won't suddenly all be skinny because we know that there are 250 calories in a grande vanilla latte.  I most certainly won't stop eating Burgerville because I know what's in the halibut sandwich (Ok, I might have one less a year).  But, as much as we know what's in the shirts on our backs, the gas mileage of our cars and the efficency of our washers, we should know what we put in our mouths when we go out to eat.  We have the right to know and to make our own best choices based on clear information.

If you agree, let your elected representative know that you support knowing what's in your food.  They represent you, after all, not the Oregon Restaurant Association.  

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Karol, I disagree strongly with this bill.

    The only thing that has changed since the Nutrition Labelling and Education Act of 1990 is more besity in the U.S. Eighteen years of mandatory education and labelling has not had any positive affect on the expanding waistline of our country. Why then would mandatory nutirtional labelling in chain restuarants have any different result?

    You mention Subway and their voluntary labelling. They do this for competitive advantage as a marketing ploy and as part of their business plan. Subway actively markets to those who seek a healthier alternative to the bulk of fast food. It works for them. Who are these 70% of Oregonians supporting nutritional information on menus? Who ran the study and how werethe questions framed?

    Most of the people I know are pretty sabe and intuitively understand that a daily mix of quarter pounders and sugar coated fries isn't good for you. We don't need "Supersize Me" or mandatory labels at Mickie D's to ram home that point.

    The unfortunate fact that gums up this feel good project is that 18 years of data indicate that many in the US will ignore the information out there and go on with their bad eating habits regardless. Of course many will end up with hypertension, type II diabetes, clogged arteries and worn out weight bearing joints. They also will then be bellowing for the best medical care available to "fix" the problems that they created.

  • Terry O (unverified)

    As one of those overweight Americans, and realizing this morning, when stepping on the scale, that I've hit maximum density at this point in my life, I am also opposed to this bill. For similar reasons as Kurt above. I think that educating us on what's in what we eat might help in the short term, but in the long term, we'll just become numb to it. We've proven over the last 20 years to just get fatter despite the last nutrition act.

    I'm more of an advocate for creating a "fat tax" of sorts. We have penalties in this country for smokers, drinkers, speeders, etc. But I can't say there is a real, identifiable penalty for those of us that choose to be overweight.

    How about significantly increased health insurance rates for certain brackets of overweight? Those that have a legitimate weight problem, such as genetic, or other health issue can get a waiver after more than one doctor signs off on a diagnosis. But for those of us that just can't put the fork down, or can't tie up the laces long enough, we should pay the same way a smoker or drinker does. It's a choice, not a disease, for most of us.

    I'm sure my view will be very unpopular, but I believe that is just an overall justification and excuse for most people that disagree. I don't know the facts, but I would guess the overwhelming majority of overweight people are overweight by choice, not because of a medical issue. We choose to eat unhealthy, eat too much, and not exercise enough.

    So, why can't an insurance company charge extra for your premiums? Life insurance? Put a hefty tax on any restaurant that has a drive through window in 50% or more of their locations. Or a tax on junk food restaurants like ice cream shops.

    Adding expenses to a business by requiring nutritional information on the menu is the wrong way to try to educate Americans. I can't imagine that any American with the ability to go to a restaurant doesn't have some idea of how good or bad the food is for them.

  • Nancy Becker (unverified)

    It is impossible to know how many calories are in restaurant food. Note, it is not whether it is "good for you" or "bad for you" that is the issue, it is information, nor would this rule apply only to fast food joints. How would anyone know that that a Caesar salad could be more calories than a turkey sandwich? or that a milkshake is more calories than two burgers? Or, that hot pot fish in a chain chinese restaurant is twice as many calories as lemon fish? The consumer needs information to make an informed choice about restaurant food. If we lived in a society where we had someone fixing most of our meals, this wouldn't be necessary. Today many people "dine out' because they dont have the time to cook- not because they are celebrating, and they make choices based upon the description of the food- not on health concerns. We know the price of a food before we purchase it, why shouldn't we know the calories? And besides- what is the restaurant industry hiding? what are they afraid of us finding out?

  • Eric Cain (unverified)

    What in the world is wrong with this bill? All it aims to do is give people more information. It is ridiculous to say that because people probably won't do anything with the information, we shouldn't give it to them. In the absence of having (a) given people the information and (b) then determining through study of a real situation (not hypothetical conjecture) how behavior does or doesn't change .... well, let's give it a try. I'm under the impression studies in NYC do, in fact, prove that when calories are listed people modify their choices. But don't take my word for it - let's pass this bill and find out. What do we have to lose? Why in the world wouldn't we want to give it a try?

  • Mary Lou Hennrich (unverified)

    Karol--you are right on!

    People sometimes seem to miss the point. Menu labeling is NOT telling anyone what to eat or what's "healthy." It is simply posting calories (they Do count) where is it easy for everyone to see them--on menus and menu boards so anyone who chooses to look at them has this basic nutritional information easily available BEFORE ordering--not afterwards when you turn over the tray liner or locate the poster with information on your way to wash your hands in the bathroom. In NYC where calories are now posted on menus, menu boards and food tags, 90% of customers say they see and use the information in their decisions about what to order.

    The number of calories in menu items is not "intuitive." If you don't believe this, go to and take the chain restaurant menu labeling quiz. If you are like the thousands who have taken it, you will be quite surprised that the things you might think are lower in calories are actually higher and vice versa. My husband is very thankful that he now knows that the chicken caesar salad is much higher in calories and fat (the dressing, cheese and croutons) than a small sirloin steak, baked potato with sour cream. All the time he was trying to keep his weight in check, he was ordering without accurate information readily available. How many other "choices" are we making without adequate information.

    Congratulations to Multnomah County Commissioners acting at the Board of Health for MC and for enacting strong menu labeling rules for all chain restaurants (15+ locations nationwide.) By January 1st 2010, we who live and work in MC will have calories displayed at point of ordering on menus, food tags, and both inside and drive through menu boards. Lane County Commissioners are also considering basically the same policy and rules.

    Why not the cover the entire state, consistently with the same rules? Urge your legislators to vote yes on Rep. Tina Kotek's HB2726--statewide menu labeling, mirroring the MC policy and rules. Polls show that 70% of Oregonians want calories on menus and menu boards. Hear the will of the people!! mlh

  • Chris P (unverified)

    Kurt, just because "many in the US will ignore the information out there," is no reason to oppose this bill. We need to balance out the increased portion sizes, increased calorie counts, and increased prevalence of fast food generally, with simple measures such as this.

    The reality is that obesity rates are increasing. As people, our willpower and our powers of individual responsibility haven't diminished - so why can't we counterbalance the giant influx of marketing dollars spent by soda companies, junk food makers and fast food joints?

    Terry O - you want a fat tax and want to charge insurance holders more for unhealthy lifestyles? Well bring it on! But that's no reason to oppose mandatory calorie counts on chain restaurant menus.

  • Carlos Crespo (unverified)

    The bill is not telling anyone what to eat, when to eat, or how to eat. In the spirit of full disclosure the only thing the bill is doing is providing information to consumers when they make their purchases. Some people want to get as many calories as possible for their purchase while others prefer to limit their caloric intake, and others simply do not care. It is their choice, and that is all this bill is doing, providing information for people to make the best possible choice for their situation.

  • (Show?)

    It's a no-brainer. Consumers deserve this information. As someone who regularly reads product labels, I would love it. For reasons cited by other commenters, I find Kurt's argument specious--that not everyone will find the information useful is no reason not to offer it to those who will. I'm also strongly suspicious of the causal argument Kurt draws between labeling and obesity. Concurrence should never be confused for correlation.

  • Douglas K. (unverified)

    Personally, I like having this information. And I like being able to walk into Burgerville and get it handed to me on request. This is not any significant burden on a restaurant chain with standardized menus and food items. In fact, some of them (like Burgerville) do it already. It would be a burden on a single restaurant where the chef is continually experimenting with new meal items and the restaurant prints out a different "menu of the day," but those restaurants will be exempt.

    Like Jeff said, it's a no-brainer. Those of us who want the information will have it. Those who don't want it are free to ignore it.

  • mara (unverified)

    This is an issue of corporate responsibility. Consider Ruby Tuesday's Fresh Chicken & Broccoli Pasta. Sounds healthy, right? According to CPSI, a public health advocacy group, this healthy-sounding meal has 2,060 calories and 128 grams of fat. That's more than the recommended calories for most people to eat all day, much less in one meal.

    How are people supposed to do live healthily when they're told to eat things like grilled chicken and broccoli, and then the restaurants that serve it make it unhealthy and don't tell people?

    When people know the truth, they can make better choices. Of course not everyone will change their behavior, but if enough people do it, there will be a greater demand for food that's actually healthy, rather than pretend-healthy.

    Ultimately it's the profit motive that will lead businesses like Ruby Tuesday's to change their menu. Menu labeling will help increase the demand for healthy food, leading to more healthy options on restaurant menus, and more healthy choices for people.

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    It's amazing how many "healthy" sounding items can have a lot more calories than things you'd consider unhealthy.

    I found out about a lot of the items with extremely high fat content when I was having gallbladder problems. The problems were because of a genetic issue, but anything high in fat made the pain worse.

    One of the biggest culprits? Ranch dressing. Something that people in the U.S. eat tons of every year. Something we pour all over our kids' veggies to get them to eat them.

    I try to eat salads fairly often, and they can be some of the biggest fat/calorie items on the menu. Having it tell me how many calories something is (and I wish they'd add fat to that) would go a long way to helping me to choose the items that are the best for me.

  • (Show?)

    It's amazing how many "healthy" sounding items can have a lot more calories than things you'd consider unhealthy.

    I found out about a lot of the items with extremely high fat content when I was having gallbladder problems. The problems were because of a genetic issue, but anything high in fat made the pain worse.

    One of the biggest culprits? Ranch dressing. Something that people in the U.S. eat tons of every year. Something we pour all over our kids' veggies to get them to eat them.

    I try to eat salads fairly often, and they can be some of the biggest fat/calorie items on the menu. Having it tell me how many calories something is (and I wish they'd add fat to that) would go a long way to helping me to choose the items that are the best for me.

  • AVA (unverified)

    I don't know if menu labeling will actually help me overcome my natural cravings for the high calorie foods that constantly surround and entice me - but that's beside the point:

    Calorie labeling on menus will finally give me the freedom to make a healthier choice for me and my family!

    Kurt you're right that I intuitively know that a burger and fries are not particularly healthy- but just how many calories does the supersized version have compared with the small? Most of us don't intuitively know this. And what about the salad, pasta primavera, fruit shake or the grilled chicken sandwich? There are scores of menu items that sound like they could be healthier options with a reasonable number of calories- but are they? Not always!

    Some argue that if I or others want to make sure that we're eating healthy then eat at home- well, I agree in general, but I'm also a busy mom and enjoy the occasional convenience of eating out- why shouldn't I be able to go out and still be able to make healthier choices if I want to? I would think that restaurants would want consumers such as myself to continue eating out at their establishments.

    Menu labeling is about providing consumer information and consumer freedom-it's no surprise to me that the vast majority of Oregonians want menu labeling- it's about time!

  • Michael M. (unverified)

    It never ceases to amaze me how willing and ready so many of you are to spend other people's money for them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence [see the first comment] that yet another regulation or requirement won't do a bit of good and will instead be yet another burden on anyone trying to earn a living in Oregon.

    Blue Oregon, leading our state into ever-deeper recession and higher unemployment. Keep up the good work -- we're already at number 3 for unemployment, we only have to overtake Michigan and South Carolina. I'm confident, with Karol and Jeff and Co. pointing the way, we will get to No. 1!

  • (Show?)

    Yes Michael M, Having restaurants add information that they already have to their menus will cause unemployment all over the state. Brilliant! When I was plotting to have people lose jobs, I totally didn't count on that! Amazing the clarity you've brought to the discussion. Thanks!

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    Karol, at least we've been upgraded to "Co." And imputed to have the power to sway unemployment in Oregon. We are all powerful!

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Goodness me, (insert stronger words for effect). You people who say, what can it hurt? why not try it and see? what are the restaurants hiding are boldly willing to give over yet more personal responsibility to some faceless government entity.

    Jeff, it isn't a casual cnnect between labelling and obesity. It is empirical FACT that labelling of the past 18 years has done nothing to curb the growing waistline, hips and buttucks of people in the US. Eric, we've already done the "experiment" and it has failed to prove the null hypothethis (what if we mandate nutritional labelling and it affects healthier eating, nutrition and reduces weight in the general population?) Point of fact the dat fairly conclusively shows that from that criterion, labelling has been an abject failure.

    What does it hurt? Well, it ads cost of doing business with NO tangible positiv4 result. Again see above for 18 years of data proving otherwise.

    The pblic here in the US has a love/hate relationship with food We have steadily increased the size and fat content in food portions for well over 40 years. When compared with other countries we literally gorge ourselves. But hey, don't take my word for it, a no-less sanguine source than "People" magazine (01/12/09) states:

    1. In 1963 dinner plates were 9 inches in diameter and held about 810 calories. In 2004 the dinner plate had grown to 12 inches and held 1870 calories.
    2. The Stabucks venti double mocha cappucino is 20 oz of fun, 7/11's Big Gulp is 64 oz. of fructose induced frenzy and the Mcdonald's super sized drink is 32 oz. of sugary delight. since 1988 the drink cup sizes have seen large become medium, medium become small and small become a child's cup. But hey, if you would just order water instead of all that sugary goo it wouldn't matter.
    3. In England the average size of fries ordered is 5.5 oz; in the US it is 7 oz.
    4. France, home of the croissant serves and average sized baked item at 2 oz. Here in the US we pile it on at double, 4 oz.
    5. Back to England where the average sized steak portion served is 8 oz (Mad Cow Disease added for free); but in the US we caonsume a Tejas sized 20 oz.
    6. Even the venerable bagel comes in for infaltion having doubled in size over the past 20 years.

    The problem IS NOT enough information, no the problem is the absolute lack of self control by the US public when it comes to healthy, nutrirous food consumption either dining out or at home.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    ** Disclaimer

    I do not normally read "People" magazine; but the January issue was the most available thing to occupy my time this afternoon while in DMV purgatory getting a license renewed.

    Also, I too am easily 40 lbs north of prime with my own body composition. However I'm not blaming anyone but myself.

  • Miles (unverified)

    I'm totally in favor of this legislation. More information for the public is almost always a good thing, and the cost of this information is minimal.

    I wouldn't bet on the information having a positive effect, however. First, there is a halo effect for restaurants like Subway. Because they are marketed as the "healthy" option, people go in and often order MORE as a result. If you think your sandwich is "healthy" you often convince yourself that chips and a cookie just aren't that bad. Second, there can be an avoidance effect from food labeling. Some studies have shown that when confronted with nutritional information, some people order the less healthy option because they assume the healthiest items won't taste as good. So if the chicken sandwich at McDonald's has the fewest calories and lowest fat, people will order to quarter-pounder. If Mary Lou is still reading this, perhaps she can provide links to some of these studies.

    In the end, though, it's far better to give people information and have them make bad choices than withhold that information and make them guess.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Kurt, you can't claim empirical fact without a study and a control group. Notwithstanding your claim to the contrary, you don't have that in this case. Just because waistlines have grown since food labeling laws went into effect doesn't mean they wouldn't have grown MORE without them. Nor does it mean they wouldn't have grown LESS. You just can't tell unless you do a study that controls for all the other factors that impact obesity. If you have a study showing such a link between labeling and obesity, please cite it so the rest of us can be educated.

    Also, you're right about America's attitude towards food compared to other countries, particularly European countries. Having lived in France, I was struck by how much they know about food, nutrition, balance, etc. When I asked how they know what to eat and what's healthy, the answer was "Doesn't everyone know this?" Food culture is part of French culture, so they grow up learning about food in a way that Americans don't. Which in my view is a reason why labeling makes sense here. We don't have food knowledge imparted to us in our families, schools, or workplaces, so we need some other source of information.

  • Emilia Biavaschi (unverified)

    The type of labeling that HB 2726 requires is calorie counts at the point of purchase, something which Oregonians have never been given in the past. As stated by others above, it is not enough for nutrition information to be available via brochures, tray liners, food wrappers, and online - something that has not proven to do much good. Studies have shown that information presented in this form is only noticed by 4 percent of customers. This bill puts calorie counts where people can use them to make informed, healthy choices.

    The bill only applies to restaurants with 15 or more outlets nationwide, so as not to unduly burden small businesses. Many of the additional costs to these businesses will be absorbed at a company’s headquarters versus by the individual franchises, as they are related to menu development, printing and nutritional analysis. The minimal cost to restaurants is clearly outweighed by the enormous benefit consumers.

    Oregon spends over $780 million dollars per year in healthcare costs related to obesity. In this economic climate, a bill such as HB2726 that addresses our growing obesity crisis seems like exactly the kind of legislation that we should be supporting.

  • Helen (unverified)

    Research has shown that an earlier poster was correct -- nutrition labels are very confusing to most people. Here's a study:

    Consumer understanding and use of nutrition labelling: a systematic review. Cowburn G, Stockley L. Public Health Nutr. 2005 Feb;8(1):21-8. Review.

    Although with minimal instruction, most people use nutrition labels on food in stores to make healthier choices. Here's a study:

    Nutrition knowledge, food label use, and food intake patterns among Latinas with and without type 2 diabetes. Fitzgerald N, Damio G, Segura-Pérez S, Pérez-Escamilla R. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Jun;108(6):960-7.

    HOWEVER, most people get the basics, like this item has more calories than that item. Calorie content is what is being proposed for menu labeling, NOT serving size, grams of fat per serving, and all the other confusing stuff. Just that this item has more (or less) calories than that item.

    There was a GREAT Health Impact Study done in LA county on menu labeling, and they had really interesting results. They estimate that if menu labeling prompted 10% of patrons to reduce their calorie consumption by 100 calories, then 39% of the annual average weight gain in LA county could be averted. That's amazing. Even more amazing is that if the numbers reached as high as 30% of patrons reducing their calories by 100, ALL of the average annual weight gain in the county could be averted. Check it out:

    People eat out OFTEN. And when they do, they consume way more calories than they need. Let's give people more information so they can make the best choices for themselves.

  • Idaho River Journeys (unverified)

    Simply preparing all your own meals from scratch solves most of the problems mentioned.

  • Terry Parker (unverified)

    Once again it appears the legislature is attempting to apply their own brand of social engineering, this time by discriminating against chain restaurants, many of which are actually franchised small businesses. Article 1 Section 20 of the Oregon Constitution reads “Equality of privileges and immunities of citizens. No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.–“

    The key words here whereby the legislature gets around what they perceive as discriminatory practices are: “which, upon the same terms” But what do those words actually mean? Would it be OK to craft a law for law enforcement officers to stop red vehicles for traffic violations but not blue ones? I think not. But the color of the red vehicle is a different condition than the blue one so technically Article 1 Section 20 has been satisfied.

    The real test however lies in what the intent of Article 1 Section 20 was when the framers of the text adopted it into the Oregon Constitution. At that time chain restaurants were non-existent. Any law passed that applied to restaurants would then have applied to all of them. Therefore by attempting to pass a law today that only applies to chain restaurants and using the words “which, upon the same terms” as a scapegoat is in actuality a form of legislative discrimination, and possibly could be proved in court as being unconstitutional based on the original intent of Article 1 Section 20. Therefore any law that requires calorie counts be posted on menus needs to apply to all eating establishments, or not passed into law at all in Oregon.

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    Mixed thoughts on this proposal. Information, transparency, etc. are all good. But the basic information regarding nutritional content of food items and categories (although perhaps not recipe specific in every case) is pretty much already available to anybody that chooses to inquire. It took me less than a second to determine that a Carl's Junior $6 burger has 1520 calories. Not that I would eat one, but now I know. Seems like this law will be a pain in the ass to comply with, and not accomplish anything in particular other than require stacks of tree-killing paper forms to be handed out and become litter blowing around in the Burger King parking lot.

    Also, other than "local protectionism", why does the proposal exempt restaurants with less than 10 locations? Is the foie gras appetizer I ordered at 23Hoyt inherently more healthful than something I would get from McD's, such that 23Hoyt need not tell me what the percentage of fat is in the foie gras (answer is 85 percent calories from fat: a 2-ounce serving contains 25 grams of fat and 85 milligrams of cholesterol). So much guilty pleasure. Mmmmmm.

    Seems like the Oregon legislature has more important things to consider, like outlawing the wearing of spandex by the morbidly obese.

  • Nick V (unverified)

    Interesting to note that New York City has been doing this for about a year now. The restaurant lobbies there fought it aggressively (They unsuccessfully took the city to court after the law was enacted.) The calorie information is displayed next to the price on menus at all chain restaurants. I don't think I've seen a McDonalds go out of business yet because of it!

  • Cathyk (unverified)

    For me, menu labelling would be a life-saver. I would expand the bill to include ingreadients that are possible allergens. Personally, I am gluten intolerant. Gluten can be found in many foods that would surprise you. Other allergens include nuts, egg, soy lactose and etc. Calories are great, but its just the beginning.

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