As the indulgent summer season rolls in, Panera has announced plans to remove all artificial additives from its food menu within three years. Chipotle, Subway and others also are heading in this better-for-you direction.
The question eating away at some nutritionists: So what?
As fast-food chains boast about transparency and providing lean options, nutrition experts are divided over whether consumers will use their increased awareness to make healthier choices or continue gravitating toward the calorie-filled classics.
“It is somewhat unclear what the full impact of menu labeling will be,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “It’s hard to know until you see the policy applied nationwide.”
Wootan said that despite initial opposition, most in the food industry now recognize that menu labeling is “simple, inexpensive and what consumers want.”
“I love seeing the calories listed,” Theresa Blumer, a 49-year old stay-at-home mom from Florida, wrote in an email. “If they don’t have that information, I choose to eat elsewhere.”
Running coach Jason Fitzgerald says he prefers to focus less on the number of calories than “the quality of the food, especially the degree to which it was processed.”
CSPI reports that 78 percent of Americans support menu labeling. But a 2013 ?study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Cornell universities is the most recent to show that menu labeling does not directly reduce calorie consumption.
Julie Downs, the study’s lead author, said the study “took a new step” by adding trials in which some consumers were given recommended daily and per-meal calorie intakes in addition to calorie counts on menus.
“Even when given that extra guidance, consumers (on average) didn’t choose a lower calorie meal,” Downs said.
No shortage of low-cal meals exists: Initiatives like McDonald’s “Favorites under 400 Calories” and Subway’s “Fresh Fit Choices” highlight healthier fast-food options.
Hank Cardello, the author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, said whether customers take advantage of these leaner options depends on the individual. “All consumers are not created equal,” he said.
Cardello, also the director of the Hudson Institute’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, placed consumers into broad groups: those who consistently eat healthfully, those who want to eat healthfully but face barriers in terms of things like cost or convenience and those who tell you to get lost. He said that restaurateurs can appeal to the middle group by marketing items like Burger King’s “Satisfries,” which have fewer calories and fat than the original fries without sacrificing taste.
“Healthy initiatives can help encourage people to make better choices, but there’s only so much a restaurant can do,” Adam Campbell, fitness director at Men’s Health magazine, wrote in an email. “The responsibility is ultimately on the consumer.”
That responsibility is no small one. Despite all the talk about health, items like Outback’s 1,948-calorie Bloomin’ Onion and Cracker Barrel’s 3,229-calorie Baked Apple Dumplin still exist — and still sell.