Correction to This Article
An Oct. 26 business article gave an incorrect figure for the number of sandwich combinations one could have with a choice of 15 different fillings between the slices of bread. The correct figure is 1.3 trillion. An Oct. 26 Business article misquoted Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association. Anderson said, "If you have a restaurant where you have 15 different choices to put between two slices of bread, you have 1.3 trillion possible combinations."

McDonald's Plans to Print Nutrition Data on Food Boxes

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

McDonald's Corp. said yesterday that it will put nutrition information about its food -- including fat and sodium content and the number of calories it contains -- on the packaging of most menu items starting early next year.

McDonald's said customers increasingly are looking for more information about the food they eat.

McDonald's spokesman Lisa Howard said putting the information on the packaging will make it "simple to understand, easy to use, easy to access."

Critics said the move is a step in the right direction but doesn't go far enough because customers will get the information only after they order, when it is less likely to be noticed or to affect behavior. "A far better step would be to provide calorie counts right on the menu board, so consumers would have that one critical piece of information before they placed their order," Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement.

Many chain restaurants put nutrition information on posters, in brochures or on the Web, but restaurant executives said that inspires few customers to change their eating habits.

Restaurant industry experts said McDonald's will blunt criticism that the chain sells unhealthful food. The more choices and information the chains provide, the less they can be blamed for customers' poor health, they said.

"I think it's a very bold move," said Ronald N. Paul, president of industry consulting firm Technomic Inc. of Chicago. "I don't think it's going to have much of an impact on the business. I think it'll have an impact on the critics."

Nutritionists and consumer activists have pushed for restaurants to put information on fat and calorie content on menus and menu boards, where they think it would change behavior.

They noted the experience of Ruby Tuesday, which last year put calorie and fat information throughout its menu. Sales dropped. The chain quickly removed the information for all but its least unhealthful food.

Legislation is pending in some places, including Washington and New York, that would make on-menu nutritional information mandatory. So far, the restaurant industry has fought off such legislation, arguing that it would be expensive and difficult to implement with accuracy.

"If you have a restaurant where you have 15 different choices to put between two slices of bread, you have 1.3 trillion possible combinations," said Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association. "So the mandatory format, one size fits all, really doesn't work in the real world."

McDonald's had a different problem: Putting nutrition information on its menu boards was "confusing" to customers when the chain conducted consumer research, Howard said. It put the information on the packaging instead.

Now, after unwrapping a double cheeseburger, a McDonald's customer will be able to see that he or she is about to consume 460 calories and 23 grams of fat. A medium order of fries has 350 calories and 16 grams of fat.

Paul noted that even as nutrition information has become more widely available, people are eating more high-calorie foods.

"Everything else to date hasn't changed eating habits," Paul said. "Where are all the veggie burgers being sold? At least at an anecdotal level, what seems to be working is bigger sandwiches and bigger portions."

McDonald's experience shows just how few customers are going out of their way to find out how fattening a particular burger might be. The chain lists nutrition information on its Web site. That information gets about 700,000 hits a month, Howard said. McDonald's serves 23 million customers a day in the United States.

The new information will start appearing on packaging in March, but not on some packages -- such as cups that might hold different products.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company