Marion Nestle on Calorie Counts, 16 Months In


When the New York City Department of Health regulated that chain restaurants must post calories, they promised huge health gains — calorie labels would prevent 30,000 cases of diabetes, they said, and reduce the number of obese New Yorkers by 150,000. Of course, it’s too early to know whether or not these things will come to pass.

In practice, the calorie postings are mainly doing what they should right now — giving consumers more information about what they’re buying, so that we can all make educated choices about what to order. But that’s not to say that the calorie listing law is being strictly enforced, or that the calories listed are accurate.

Just the other day, at an Au Bon Pain, at least half the baked goods lacked calorie information, and that’s not uncommon. Even if the city were to notice this and give out a ticket, mega-chains like Au Bon Pain can probably bear a modest fine every now and then. And you’ve only got the restaurant’s word that the calorie counts are accurate — some underestimate.

Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition, public health, and sociology at NYU.

Nestle recently noted on her blog that the law is working in the sense that chains are cutting calories — Macaroni Grill’s scallop-and-spinach salad has recently gone from 1,270 calories to 390. And struggling Starbucks rolled out a new line of lower-calorie foods, like that “power protein plate.”

But earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a long piece about the status of the calorie count law, pointing out that restaurants aren’t always posting accurate info (Taco Bell’s fresco grilled steak taco was listed at 160 calories, when it’s really 297), and that studies are unclear on whether or not the listings will make a difference in obesity and diabetes rates.

We caught up with Nestle about some of these issues.

Some outlets have reported that the calorie counts don’t take the digestive process into account (like the fact that fiber takes more energy to digest).

The method for determining calories is plenty accurate enough and it does take digestion into account. It does not consider metabolism, but the differences are too small to matter.

Whether the companies have measured right is another matter. Some attempts to check find large differences. But none of this matters much because the key point is that 500 calories is one-fourth of what most people need in a day. And if your lunch is 1200 calories, it doesn’t leave much for dinner.

Are people changing their eating habits because of the calorie listings?

Some yes, some no. Most people who go to fast food places are not going there to diet. I’m for calorie labeling. People do not gain weight because they overeat 50 calories. They gain because they overeat hundreds of calories a day. That’s why small errors don’t matter. Something that is 1000 calories is half a day’s food, whether it’s really a bit less or more.

How can restaurants that post inaccurate calorie information be held to account?

The only way I can think of to hold restaurants accountable is to test the products and complain. Somebody should be doing this.

Interesting. Perhaps the Health Department should be doing random spot-checks, collecting dishes and sending them out for analysis, if they really want to do it right.