It’s been said that knowledge is power, but the knowledge is useless unless the people given the information actually use it. Passage of the Healthy Menu Choices Act, 2015 in Ontario, effective January 1, 2017, mandates that all restaurants with 20 or more locations must clearly reveal to customers how many calories are in every menu item. How will Ontarians use this information? Will it drive or encourage people to make better food choices for themselves and their children?
Only time will tell. One thing to consider is that fast-food restaurants are not known for providing healthy food, although some attempts have been made to introduce more nutritious choices on the menus, such as fruit and salads. Major reasons why people go to fast-food establishments are for quick service, inexpensive food, and items that taste good, largely because they are rich in three ingredients that people crave: fat, salt, and sugar.
Ontario may be the first and only province to make the move to provide calorie information thus far, but it is not the first venture into this type of legislation. In 2008, New York City implemented calorie posting among chain restaurant menus. Several research teams have explored the impact, if any, of providing this information to the public on the number of calories consumed.
One study involved giving 1,121 adult lunchtime customers at two McDonald’s restaurants daily, per-meal, or no calorie recommendations once before and once after the legislation was enacted. Meal receipts and survey responses were collected from all of the participants as they left the restaurants.
Here’s what the investigators found: providing calorie information had no direct effect nor did it moderate the impact of calorie labels on food purchases. In fact, the authors noted a slight increase in the number of calories people consumed once they had caloric information.
In a follow-up study five years later, 7,699 individuals at four fast-food restaurants were questioned. Overall, the percentage of restaurant users who noticed the calorie information and who used it declined, and there were no significant changes in the amount of calories people consumed over time.
Do these findings suggest the Ontario legislation is doomed for failure? According to Toronto internal medicine specialist Dr. Sean Wharton, “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 judgments.” How will Ontarians respond to their new-won knowledge?
Written by Deborah Mitchell. Deborah Mitchell is passionate about personal health and the well-being of animals and the planet. She has authored, coauthored, and ghostwritten more than 40 books, contributes regularly to several websites, and shares information on physical, emotional, and spiritual health on her blog, deborahmitchellbooks.com.
Cantor J et al. Five years later: awareness of New York City’s calorie labels declined with no changes in calories purchased. Health Affairs (Millwood) 2015 Nov; 34(11): 1893-900. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
CBC News. How many calories in that fast-food meal? Ontario menu labelling legislation takes effect Jan 1. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
Downs JS et al. Supplementing menu labeling with calorie recommendations to test for facilitation effects. American Journal of Public Health 2013 Sep; 103(9): 1604-9. Retrieved March 1, 2017.