You probably missed it in the health care debate, but the new law will require fast food chains to post calorie counts on their menus.  This regulation has been in place in New York for a few years, and California and Oregon were on their ways to implementing it themselves.  But now, it will be a national requirement.  Well, not exactly “now.”  The FDA has a year to propose the specific regulations that would mandate calorie listings, but finalizing the rule could take much longer.

This regulation didn’t get a whole lot of press, not just because it’s a tiny change compared to the rest of the health care bill, but also because major restaurant chains supported it.  As states one-by-one created their own regulations, national chains would be faced with patchwork laws which would be harder to comply with, and require more work to decipher.  So, they favored a single national standard.

More health information doesn’t seem particularly controversial, especially when the restaurants themselves are supporting the law, but there is a bit more to it.  As points out, mega-chains are in a better position to deal with the regulations than smaller restaurant chains.  Hiring a lawyer to interpret the law, and a design team to touch up your menus costs a big chain about the same amount as a small chain, but a Burger King or Wendy’s is better able to bear the cost than a Taco Casa or Jack Astor’s.

I don’t think the big chains had this advantage in mind when they pushed for the law, but they get the slight advantage either way.

But, perhaps more important is that the calorie information could end up having a detrimental effect on health.  Whaaat?

Let’s go on a detour for a moment and talk about retirement savings.  Suppose the ideal amount to save from your paycheck is 5%, but that you only know this if you’ve done the proper research and planning.  Now, imagine your employer has a retirement savings plan, and will automatically deduct money from your paycheck.  You are free to change the amount at will, but your employer still needs to pick a default.  5% would be the optimal default.  If someone has higher expenses and can’t afford to save, they can lower the amount, but for everyone else it works.

But, let’s also consider what happens with 3% and 0% as defaults.  Under 3% what happens is that people assume the company has picked 3% for a good reason.  They’ll assume the company did some research about what people should be saving and based the default on that.  Many people will save the 3% and never question what they should be saving.  A few will realize they should be saving more, and opt to save 5%, but a lot will stay at the “sticky” 3% value.

Under 0%, a few people will save nothing, but almost everyone will realize 0% is not enough, will research what they should be saving, and then switch to 5%.  Either a 0% or 3% could result in total higher saving, depending on how many people choose to do research.  The difference is that with 0% more people will choose the optimal amount, but under 3%, the people who don’t do research are better off.

Now let’s go back to calories.  The optimal level of information for the consumer to have is a complete picture: calories, fat, sodium, fiber, protein, etc.  While our imaginary business could easily pick the optimal default, that’s not an option here.  We can’t possibly post a full nutritional breakdown on the menu (though the information is available at the restaurant), and if we could cram all the data in there, no one would bother reading it.

So, we have to choose between posting calories (the 3% option) or posting nothing (the 0% option).  Everyone knows that they should look at the full picture, but when calories are posted, very few people will ask to see the full nutritional information.  They’ll assume that calories are the most important consideration and stop there.  With no information provided, more people will take a complete look at the nutritional data, but more people will also not look at any data at all.

We essentially have two options, either everyone is a little informed, or some people are fully informed and some people are completely uninformed.  There’s no real way to tell how things will play out except for a very comprehensive study, but it’s worth bearing in mind that not everything we think will obviously help people make healthier choices will actually work how we want.

And, just for fun, let’s do a quick comparison of some fast food items:

McDonald’s: 10 pc Chicken Nuggets v. 5 pc Chicken Selects


400 Calories, 29g Fat, 1000mg Sodium, 24g Protein


660 Calories, 40g Fat, 1680mg Sodium, 38g Protein

Subway: Footlong Ham v. Footlong Tuna


450 Calories, 9g Fat, 2400mg Sodium, 36g Protein


504 Calories, 60g Fat, 1860g Sodium, 42g Protein

Wendy’s: Baconator Single v. Mandarin Chicken Salad (with Homestyle Chicken Filet)


600 Calories, 33g Fat, 1360mg Sodium, 35g Protein

Mandarin Salad

660 Calories, 34g Fat, 1360g Sodium, 28g Protein

And, if you’ve read this far, I assume you have a lot of time to kill, so here’s the nutritional breakdown of my lunch today:

Marie Callender’s Chicken Carbonara

390 Calories, 13g Fat, 780mg Sodium, and 22g Protein, and a whole bunch of vitamins and shit, because it has tomatoes and peas and shit.  …And by “shit” I mean “Parmesan Cheese Power” and “Mesquite Smoke Flavoring.”  And whaddayaknow, it was actually pretty good.

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