A Big Mac has 550 calories. McDonald’s customers say: So what?

September 24, 2012

At a McDonald's in downtown Washington, new calorie labels did not get much attention.

The first thing you notice about McDonald’s new calorie labels on menus is that they’re really, really difficult to notice. The text that tells you the name of an item — say, a Big Mac — is about double the size of that telling you the number of calories (in this case, 550).

Just reading the nutritional information — added to all McDonald's menu boards last week — pretty much requires getting out of line and getting up front and personal with a cashier.

I wasn't the only one who didn't notice the menu labels right away. During a Friday lunch hour I spent at a McDonalds in downtown Washington, two blocks from the White House, I could only find one patron who even noticed the new information.

This McDonald's is among the 12,804 franchise locations that has added calorie information to its menu boards — information the health-care law will soon require all chain restaurants to display. The new labels went up last Monday.

In interviews with about a dozen McDonald’s customers  Friday, the general consensus seemed to be this: The labels were a great idea but would not change how anyone ate.

“I didn’t notice,” said Kim Brown, a legal secretary on her lunch break. “I knew I was going to get a fish sandwich so it was going to be lighter anyway.”

(The McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, with 380 calories, is indeed one of the lower-calorie items on the menu.)

“Do I look like a guy who notices calorie labels?” John Jackson asked me, pointing to his stomach. He was eating with a group of about eight guys, who roundly agreed that calorie labels would not change how they ordered at McDonalds. “Maybe it would for my wife. But if you’re at McDonald’s, you’re here for a reason.”

The reason, for Johnson, was a supersize Powerade (220 calories), large fries (500 calories), cheeseburger (300 calories) and a Big Mac (grand total: 1,570 calories).

“Everybody knows this is one of the worst places that you could eat,” said Donata Jordan, who was eating lunch with three friends.

The general thinking among McDonalds patrons seemed to be that, when you show up to the Golden Arches, you’re not there for a healthy meal. Calorie labels don’t change that. That’s what customers guessed — and its also what research on calorie labels has shown.

After New York began requiring calorie labels, a 2008 study compared eating habits of local residents with those of Newark, a nearby city that did not implement calorie labels.

New York City residents noticed the new calorie labels; a handful even indicated that they would buy fewer calories after seeing those labels. But at the end of the day, they didn’t follow through.

New York City residents studied here, who came from low-income demographics, purchased the same amount of calories before and after the labels came online.

No one at the McDonald’s I went to seemed to expect much more than that. At the same time though, there was pretty widespread support for making the calorie information available. People might not change their eating habits, the thinking went, but at least they would be making a more informed decision.

“In case I do decide to drop some weight, it’s always good to know,” said Jackson, the guy with the Big Mac and cheeseburger. “If you decide to be healthy, it would be helpful.”

Bigger fonts might help, too. Deidre Smith, an artist, says she noticed the calorie labels right away at the McDonald’s near her house in Rockville, Md. “It was just right there in your face at that McDonald’s,” she noted. The calorie labels, incidentally, did not matter much to her: Smith had brought her own lunch (a cheese sandwich) and only stopped in to purchase coffee.

“It’s a toss-up, I think,” Smith says of the labels. “It sounds really good, but whether it has a big impact if people don’t even notice? I don’t know that will work.”

I did find one customer who had noticed the calorie labels: Dick Nigon of Sterling, Va. He and his wife, Lea, had stopped by McDonald’s after seeing an exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. Dick had ordered for the couple, noticed the calorie labels and liked them.

“I like that you have the information before you order,” he told me, when I asked about the labels. “It’s better than some kind of government health mandate in Obamacare.”

I told him that the calorie labels were, in fact, a government health mandate in Obamacare.

“Well that changes things a bit,” he responded. “I thought this was more of a voluntary sort of thing. Now I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.”

He and his wife talked it over a bit — she eating her grilled chicken sandwich, him eating a Big Mac — and didn't come to much of a conclusion about whether this was a good idea.

“The government does do certain things to make us healthy,” Dick said. “But you have to draw the line somewhere.”

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