Menu labeling: Will calorie counts matter to diners?

Obey the egg.

That’s what the little flag toothpick sitting atop my not-so-little Royal Red Robin Burger was telling me. For aside from the bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise, this specially promoted hamburger features a fried egg. On the menu, it is described as “the aristocrat of all burgers.” Indeed, sitting in my booth at the Red Robin in Gaithersburg, looking down on this symbol of decadence along with a side of fries, I did feel like a king.

(Brian Cronin/For The Washington Post)

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At the same time, knowing that this particular burger contains 1,191 calories had me also feeling like that other king, Elvis Presley (he of fried-peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich fame). What’s more, I began my lunch with onion rings and jalapeno chips. By the time the check came, my meal totaled approximately 3,000 calories.

Basically, I exceeded my daily recommended allowance by about 1,000 calories. As such, I had little to eat the rest of the day. I had also skipped breakfast that morning. Sure, my lunch didn’t have to be so Caligulan. But it was ultimately my choice — an informed choice.

Since July 2010, the Red Robin at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg has provided caloric content for every single menu item as part of a law passed by the Montgomery County Council that applies to restaurants with 20 or more locations in the country. But earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration issued its own proposal for menu labeling as required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in which all chain restaurants with 20 or more locales must post caloric content for standard menu items as well as a suggested daily allowance.

“One of the most important things we can do when it comes to the nation’s health,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg last summer, “is to provide simple basic information to the American people so they can make choices that are best for them and their family.” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also praised the legislation: “For nearly 20 years, consumers have benefited from nutrition labels on packaged foods but have remained in the dark about the nutritional quality of their restaurant meals. The passage of menu labeling closes this glaring loophole, giving consumers the information that they need to take control of their own health.” (Harkin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have pushed for menu labeling since 2003.)

But will Americans take control of their own health? Will patrons of Red Robin flock to the Garden Burger knowing it has a mere 561 calories?

According to Jennifer Andrews, director of marketing for Red Robin International in Colorado, the introduction of labels in Montgomery County and elsewhere has had “almost no impact to the menu mix that we’re aware of.” In a phone interview, Andrews said the most popular items are still the cheeseburger (931 calories) and the bacon cheeseburger (1,030 calories). “Our take,” she explained, “is that people know what they’re getting when they come into a Red Robin. . . . When they come in, they’re not focused on the nutrition. Even though it’s right there in front of them, they came to get their favorite burger.”

Still, Andrews said, “It’s great to provide the guest with this information,” and she added that once federal regulations are in place, “We will meet the law.”

Until now, restaurants have been faced with varying label laws across the country, from California and King County, Wash., to Philadelphia, New York City and North Carolina — all of which comes at a cost. The Orange County Register reported last December that in complying with state law alone, “Subway has spent $111,000 for new menus at 223 Orange County shops. Newport Beach-based Zpizza . . . said it spent about $120,000 for new takeout menus and two menu boards per store. Daphne’s [a Greek chain], which has 58 locations in the state, spent $500 per store.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the National Restaurant Association endorsed the new federal requirement, one that asks for caloric information but makes exceptions, such as for daily specials. Indeed, a Democratic congressional staffer familiar with the new requirement suggested it is in the industry’s best interests to push for one law that would supersede the others. “This helps business,” said the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely about this politically sensitive subject. “The Republicans don’t want to deal with the localities and 500 different regulations.”

Not that the law is perfect or even complete; the FDA hopes to finalize its mandate by the end of the year. And some of the original language was vague: A subclause within the health-care bill asked for eateries to provide “a succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake . . . posted prominently on the menu and designed to enable the public to understand, in the context of a total daily diet, the significance of the caloric information that is provided on the menu.”

Who makes the suggestion and how? “A restaurant . . . shall have a reasonable basis for its nutrient content disclosures, including nutrient databases, cookbooks, laboratory analyses, and other reasonable means.” At the moment, the FDA has settled on a compromise statement for restaurants to post: “A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.”

Patrick Basham, founding director of the Democracy Institute and an adjunct scholar at Cato, considers the provision deeply flawed. “One of the reasons I think this is inappropriate is that [menu label advocates] put all the emphasis on the gross caloric number and make no allowance for what it’s made up of. So it doesn’t deal with quality of nutrition. It just deals with calories that are  in that product.” In a 2007 working paper for the Washington Legal Foundation that he co-authored with John C. Luik, Basham points out that “based simply on calories, for instance, a glass of milk will show up with more calories than a soft drink, a yogurt with more calories than a bag of chips.” (Diabetics will likewise gain little insight from the newly labeled menus; their concern is less about calories than about sugar.)

Similar to the findings at Red Robin, the authors cited numerous studies by the Department of Agriculture and others indicating that labels have little effect on people’s choices, though the Orange County Register did note one study by a health agency in New York City showing that customers did order food with fewer calories after looking over labeled menus. How many fewer calories? 106. (Red Robin’s ranch sauce alone has 285 calories.)

As Basham and Luik state, “Changing consumer eating habits is not . . . simply a matter of providing more information. Rather, eating habits are driven by a more fundamental issue: individual taste.” Not that everyone involved in the legislation has such high hopes. Even the unnamed congressional staffer admitted, “If anyone is under the illusion that giving people nutritional information is going to reduce obesity, they’re crazy.”

Others, however, do see the new law as a vital weapon in the battle against unhealthful foods. In “The End of Overeating,” former FDA commissioner David Kessler writes that menu labels “provide an incentive for restaurants to offer more meals for people who are seeking to follow the guidelines of just-right eating. . . . People need to hear repeatedly, from many sources, that selling, serving and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat and salt has negative, unhealthy consequences.”

Kessler would like to see a war waged against “hyperpalatable” food similar to the war against tobacco. That comes as no surprise to Basham. His fear is that the labels will prove ineffective, and then “what [menu label advocates] will do . . . is say the information isn’t large enough, it isn’t bright enough, in fact just giving the calorie count is insufficient. What we need is some kind of warning to go with it, and then of course we’ll have a few years of ever-increasing sizes of warnings, and then we’ll actually have to have graphic warnings.”

Proponents maintain that this is strictly about making informed choices. And no doubt consumers will have more information before placing their orders. That said, they will probably continue making choices based on taste.

I, for one, chose to obey the egg.

Matus is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.

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