Would you like 400 calories with that?

By on March 13, 2014

Ontario wants to empower consumers to make more positive nutritional choices when they eat out. Under new legislation, restaurants chains in Ontario, like franchises in America, will soon be required to list calorie counts on their menus.

Many restaurants have already complied. Such regulations seems to be the appropriate course to take in an era of social corporate responsibility; however, what may at first appear to be a good-intentioned regulation may prove to be both inadequate for consumers, and a nightmare for small business owners’ regulators.

First, many acknowledge the need for action. The average Canadian now eats more than 45 dinners at a food service facility per year; almost once a week. In addition, typically they patronize restaurants and snack bars for one of every two lunches. The conclusions of several studies suggest that eating out contributes significantly to obesity, as consumers generally ingest more calories than necessary, since more often than not they grossly underestimate the caloric value of restaurant items.

Second, as public awareness and concern has increased, major restaurant operators have become more transparent by making caloric content and nutritional information readily available. In fact, approximately 60 per cent of all major chains already provide calorie data, but not always directly on their menus.

Research on this issue is as conclusive as it can be when evaluating the impact of labelling in full-service restaurants. Indeed, data collected at the Sustainable Restaurant Project at the University of Guelph is compelling. Almost 75 per cent of customers reported seeing labels on the menu, and almost 30 per cent of all customers reported using them when deciding what to order. As a result, when the menu has nutritional labelling, patrons tend to ingest fewer calories.

However, previous studies have shown mixed impacts of menu labelling in fast food settings, and some evidence would suggest that to simply display calories on menus is not enough. More comprehensive labelling, highlighting the sodium, total fat and saturated fat content for each food item would likely be more effective. It is worth noting that there is a strong possibility that menu items will change as consumer choices change which could lead to healthier menus overall.

One interesting study focusing on menu labelling discovered that consumers would order even less food if both the calorie information and the distance one would need to walk to burn off the calories are shown on the menu; this is clearly a metric any consumer would understand.

The biggest challenge to the Ontario government will be to define the scope of this legislation; American regulators are facing the same situation. Some are questioning whether convenience stores should be obligated to follow the same rules. Many consumers eating on the go purchase products at vending machines, food trucks, bookstore cafés and food stands. Almost 20 per cent of all meals in Canada considered to be “snack” meals are not purchased at a restaurant or standard grocery stores.

Even though this new legislation is aimed at large restaurant chains, independent franchise owners, will be forced to absorb new costs related to new signage and update menus every time recipes are altered. For family-owned franchises, this may prove to be an additional financial burden. To complicate matters further, restaurants that offer custom-ordered foods onsite, such as sandwiches and burritos, will need to provide customers accurate calorie data for every possible option. These challenges are similar to the ones the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently facing in the implementation phase of their menu labelling requirements.
Food service facilities where selling food are not the primary business, like movie theatres, will likely not be affected by this new legislation in Ontario, but they should. A medium-sized popcorn and soft drink can contained up to 1,600 calories, with 60 grams of saturated fat. This is the equivalent of the energy requirement for one female consumer, for one full day. It may not be the primary business for movie theatres, but food sales are a significant source of revenue for them.

Given its minority government status and the looming spring election, Ontarians will likely have to wait to become Canada’s first province to make calorie counts on menus mandatory. Such regulation is inevitable, but the way forward will be hazardous. -TroyMedia

Sylvain Charlebois and Mike Von Massow are Professors at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

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