How Many Calories Do You See in This Pizza?
Last week, McDonald’s announced that it would begin posting calorie counts on the menu boards at its more than 14,000 locations in the U.S. “At McDonald’s, we recognize customers want to know more about the nutrition content of the food and beverages they order,” said McDonald’s USA President Jan Fields. “As a company that has provided nutrition information for more than 30 years, we are pleased to add to the ways we make nutrition information available to our customers and employees.”
In 2010, under the Affordable Care Act, menu labeling regulations became law, requiring restaurants and similar retail food establishments to post calorie counts adjacent to the items on menus and menu boards. In other words, McDonald’s would have had to do it one way or the other. “Several health advocates slammed McDonald’s Corp., accusing it of disingenuously spinning an inevitable requirement as if it were a voluntary decision,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Yet McDonald’s, at least, is complying with the law as originally passed, and doing so ahead of schedule.
Pizza Chains, Supermarkets and Convenience Stores Don’t Want to Post Calories
Many others will not go willingly. Pizza chains, supermarkets and convenience stores are lobbying for exemptions and modifications to the regulations on the grounds that they are “unreasonable or unnecessarily burdensome.” The law might make sense for restaurants, but not for them, they say.
Supermarkets, for example, could be on the line for posting calorie counts for thousands of items, from sushi assembled in-house to macaroni salad from the deli. Likewise for convenience stores, only on a smaller scale. And with “34 million ways to top a pizza,” pizza chains want alternatives that “would work for pizza.” These businesses make some legitimate points. But just because it would be hard for them — and really only at first — doesn’t mean that they get to be exempted from the law.
Next: The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012
Yet that’s what the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012, introduced by Congressman John Carter (R-TX), seeks to do. The bill would restrict the menu labeling law “to businesses that derive at least half of their revenue from food served for immediate consumption or processed and prepared on site, thereby exempting most convenience stores and supermarkets,” the Los Angeles Times reported in an earlier article. And it would also allow pizza chains to post average calories and calories per serving rather than for whole pizzas as mandated by the law.
In an e-mail to concerned consumers, Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) asks, “If McDonald’s is providing calorie counts for its sodas, why shouldn’t 7-11 or Regal Cinemas? If Cracker Barrel has to list calories for its salad bar items, why shouldn’t Whole Foods or Safeway?” She has a point. Nowadays Americans buy ready-to-eat food from many different retail food establishments, not just restaurants. In its comments to the FDA (page 19 of the linked pdf), the National Restaurant Association wrote, “We believe the Proposed Rule arbitrarily and unjustifiably excludes establishments that are not only similar to, but actually function as, restaurants.”
Unlike supermarkets and convenience stores, pizza chains swear they’re not looking to be exempted. Still, as Congressman Carter put it, it’s “crazy” to require them to post calorie counts for every possible combination of crust, sauce and toppings. Yet I’m sure they can find a way to make it work. For example, complete calorie counts for standard pizza offerings could easily be provided by every chain, along with an addendum that lists the calories for each topping that might be added (or removed) to customize the pizza.
Pizza chains also want to be able to post calories per serving rather than for whole pizzas, and the size of the serving is something they would determine. “That’s a real problem when a ‘personal-sized’ pizza is labeled as four servings!” argues CSPI’s Wootan. “Sure makes the calories look better.”
Not many Americans can correctly estimate the calorie content of the ready-to-eat foods sold at supermarkets, convenience stores, movie theaters and pizza chains. And according to polls commissioned by CSPI, the vast majority of us want that information. Knowing that the tuna and chicken quesadilla (960 calories) from Whole Foods has double the calories of a slice of its meatball pizza (460), as CSPI informs us, may convince us to pass on it. Or it may not. But these calorie counts should at least be readily available to us so that we can make more informed choices about what we eat.
Photo 1 from Thinkstock, Photo 2 from King Chung Huang via flickr