Posting of calories not lowering count for most diners

RestaurantsDining and DrinkingLifestyle and LeisureRestaurant and Catering IndustryConsumersMcDonald'sNew York University

On a recent balmy afternoon Kristina Stefanopoulos was craving an Oreo McFlurry. But before she could order it she had to stare down its calorie count.

"I noticed that the snack size had only about 340 calories and the bigger one had more than 500," the 24-year-old Chicagoan said with a guilty laugh. "But I got the big one anyway."

Although she's concerned about calories and glad McDonald's started posting them on menus last week, Stefanopoulos said she really wanted the larger size.

It's a choice that echoes what several studies in New York and other early calorie-posting cities have reported: People may notice calorie counts on menu boards but, so far, few use the data to make significant changes to their orders.

This may not bode well for the national waistline, but it could reassure the nation's largest restaurant chains (those with more than 20 locations), which will likely have to disclose calories on menus later this year as part of the health care bill upheld by the Supreme Court.

Oak Brook-based McDonald's inspired headlines and applause last week for launching calorie listings before it was required. But studies and informal interviews with customers of the hamburger chain indicate that any risk of the calorie listings scaring away people or significantly cutting into sales may be minimal.

Indeed, the chain's chief marketing officer, Neil Golden, says data from areas that require calorie postings (New York, Northern California and Seattle) indicates that the most prominent effect may be happier customers.

"We haven't seen any measurable shift in purchase patterns as a result," Golden said. "But in talking to customers we found that they are pleased and surprised to find that the choices they have always made fit easily within a healthy diet."

Ron Offermann, who recently ate lunch with co-workers at McDonald's, said the new listings wouldn't affect him.

"I don't go to McDonald's to count calories," said Offermann, 48. "When I go out to eat I don't worry about that at all."

NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., said its analysis of data found most people share Offermann's view.

"When consumers eat out, they want to indulge and leave concerns about which foods are low-fat, low-calorie and low-sodium at home," the research firm said. "And in tough economic times, price concerns outweigh health concerns when it comes to eating out."

To test how labeling might play out, last year NPD presented subjects with a regular hamburger restaurant menu and another that listed calories.

"What we found was that the impact was minimal," said NPD's restaurant industry analyst, Bonnie Riggs. "Consumers indicated they may be likely to change the size of their soft drink and french fries, but they are not willing to give them up entirely. We think (calorie counts) may have a small impact initially, but then consumers will just kind of go back to what they have always done."

Riggs noted NPD surveys indicate that only 9 percent of consumers cite "healthy" or "light" offerings as the primary reason for choosing a restaurant. The main reasons cited for patronizing fast-food restaurants is "convenience, price and to get a particular item. And so if that's the reason they went in there, (calorie counts) are not going to make a difference," Riggs said.

Oleg Urminsky, who studies consumer decision-making, said he supports calorie disclosures but said some consumers ignore them.

"It can be very difficult to pass up the immediate benefit for the long-term reward, which is often well into the future and not felt as urgently," said Urminsky, an associate marketing professor at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. "This is one part of what makes these health issues so difficult. People think, 'Right now I can have something really delicious and enjoyable and if I forgo it, over the next 20 years I might have slightly better health, so I'll have it just this once.'"

Urminsky says that the calorie listings may have the most impact on those who may need them least: "Those are people who are already fairly health conscious and understand how many calories a healthy lunch should have," he said. "But I am not sure how many of them eat at McDonald's in the first place."

Still, some consumer studies on the subject are more hopeful than others.

For example, the NPD test with two menus (one with calories and one without) indicated that people might modify their orders to the tune of 100 calories in response to the calorie listings.

But when New York University researchers tallied receipts from actual restaurant purchases the calorie difference evaporated. Another NYU study that focused on teens and parents buying for children showed that only 9 percent of teens said the data would influence their choices, while 28 percent of adults said it would. Neither group, however, made significant changes.

The most positive study on the topic, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the city of New York, indicated that calorie counts led 1 in 6 consumers to notice and act on the information. Average calorie reductions, the study said, ranged from 44 to 80, depending on the restaurant. Overall calorie consumption by participants, however, did not decrease.

While some view these small calorie modifications as failed public policy, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said they make her "dance around my office."

She notes that the causes of obesity are multifaceted and the difference between obesity and healthy weight is about 100 calories (the amount burned by running a mile) a day. So if one public intervention can reduce 40 to 80 calories in some diners it can make a big difference.

Wootan says another major aim of calorie labeling was to force chains to take a hard look at the calorie content of its foods — which, she says, only about 50 percent had done — and consider reformulation on items that were embarrassingly high. She cites a recent University of Washington study saying that since calorie listing kicked in, the average entree in the Seattle area has dropped by about 40 calories.

Whether or not they believed it would make a difference in American health, most consumers surveyed outside a Chicago McDonald's said they liked knowing the information was there, and one said it was used in making a food choice.

"I was going to go for the Quarter Pounder," said Chris Nigro, of Chicago, holding up a chicken-scented bag. "But when I saw the calories I went for the chicken sandwich instead."

meng@tribune.com

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