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Debate: Mandatory calorie counts on menus

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Background and context

Many restaurants in different regions of the world are being required to list the calories of each of their dishes. This is part of many countries' campaigns to reduce obesity. Yet, many say that it is an overly draconian measure, and that it distract customers from enjoying their food.

Choice: Do mandatory calorie counts improve consumer choice?


  • Calories on menus encourage restaurants to make healthier meals. "Fast Food Menu Calorie Counter Should Be National Law". Business Week. David Kiley. July 17, 2009: "But the point is that requiring this nationally would compel restaurants to re-invent their menus, because they wouldn’t want everything on the menu to be over 1,000 calories. They can still have the fat stuff. After all, some people can eat 1,500 calorie lunches and do just fine. But people will tend to make better choices when presented with the info at point of sale."
  • More health information is always better. While it is interesting to argue that customers sometimes would prefer to live in bliss of the calories in the foods they are eating, this argument is much weaker than the general principle that more information is always better, especially when comes to health (and, particularly, at a time in history when health is such a problem).
  • Customers will pay more attention to calorie counts over time. While it may be true that some tests have shown that many restaurant goers do not necessarily pay attention to calorie counts, this will change over time as more customers learn that the information is there and learn how to read calorie counts appropriately and judge them according to one's optimal daily calorie intake. The tests that have been performed, therefore, do not indicate how customers will respond to a new culture of calorie counts over time.


  • Customers are indifferent to calorie counts on menus. Jacob Sullum. "Are you sure you want fries with that?" Reason. August 20, 2008: "Yet the desires that people express in polls are often at odds with the preferences they reveal in the marketplace. The restaurant business is highly competitive. If customers really were clamoring for conspicuous calorie counts, restaurants would provide them voluntarily. A legal requirement is necessary not because consumers want impossible-to-ignore nutritional information but because, by and large, they don't."
Ken Poulin, a consumer in New York said to USA Today in response to a 2008 New York law that required certain large restaurant chains in the city to list calories on their menus: "People are going to eat what they want; it doesn't matter what the menus say. People need to eat more vegetables and have common sense."[1]
  • Customers will enjoy their food more without a calorie count. Jacob Sullum. "Are you sure you want fries with that?" Reason. August 20, 2008: "What about the consumer's right not to know? The same research that supporters of menu mandates like to cite indicates that most consumers prefer to avoid calorie counts, enjoying their food in blissful ignorance. There's a difference between informing people and nagging them."
  • It is difficult for restaurants to keep calories in each dish consistent. It is a challenge in most restaurants - which do not work off of exact measurements of fat, butter, and olive oil - to keep the number of calories consistent within a meal each time it is prepared. This creates the risks that the calorie counts on a menu do not accurately portray the actual calorie contents of the dish, which creates a certain risk of lawsuits.

Voluntary: Is a mandatory system best, or would a voluntary one be better?



  • Marketplace can encourage restaurants to voluntarily list calories.
  • Restaurants alone can best judge customer interest in calorie counts. Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the restaurant association's New York City chapter: "We don't object to people doing it voluntarily. Our problem was the government agency forcing them to do it. We think restaurants should be able to determine from their customers how they want to get the information."[2]
  • Voluntary will lead to Mandatory If consumers care about calorie counts they will demand them on menus, eventually leading to businesses putting on calorie counts on their own out of necessity and desire for business. If consumers don't care then legislation to put them on menus is going to be utterly worthless. Why would consumers look at, or care about something they never even asked for in the first place?

Pro/con sources



See also

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