550 calories in a Big Mac, but who's counting?


WASHINGTON — The first thing you notice about McDonald's new calorie labels on menus is that they're really difficult to notice. The text that tells you the name of an item — say, a Big Mac — is about double the size of that telling you the number of calories (in this case, 550).

Just reading the nutritional information — added to all McDonald's menu boards last week — pretty much requires getting out of line and getting up front and personal with a cashier.

I wasn't the only one who didn't see the labels right away. During a Friday lunch hour I spent at a McDonald's here in Washington. I found only one patron who even noticed the information.

This McDonald's is among the 12,804 franchises that have added calorie information to menu boards — information the health-care law will require all chain restaurants to display.

Research on calorie labeling has not shown that the information makes a significant difference in how Americans eat. Of the dozen McDonald's customers I spoke with, the consensus was this: The labels were a great idea but would not change how anyone ate.

"I didn't notice," said Kim Brown, a legal secretary. "I knew I was going to get a fish sandwich, so it was going to be lighter anyway." (The Filet-O-Fish, at 380 calories, is one of the lower-calorie items.)

"Do I look like a guy who notices calorie labels?" John Jackson asked me, pointing to his stomach. He was eating with a group of guys who roundly agreed that calorie labels would not change how they ordered. "Maybe it would for my wife. But if you're at McDonald's, you're here for a reason."

The reason, for Jackson, was a supersize POWERade (220 calories), large fries (500 calories), cheeseburger (300 calories) and a Big Mac (total: 1,570 calories).

The general thinking seemed to be that, when you show up to the Golden Arches, you're not there for a healthy meal. Calorie labels don't change that.

It's also what research has shown. The New York Department of Health collected receipts from 15,000 customers at coffee shops and fast-food spots one year before and after the labels went up.

Overall, the research showed no difference in calorie consumption. Only 15 percent of customers reported using the labels to make a buying decision. Among that sub-population, however, this study did find a change: They bought 96 fewer calories than the average customer, eating about 11 percent less. At McDonald's, it was a more modest 44 calorie drop.

At McDonald's, no one seemed to expect much more than that. One customer had noticed the calorie labels: Dick Nigon of Sterling, Va. Nigon noticed the calorie labels and liked them. "I like that you have the information before you order," he said. "It's better than some kind of government health mandate in Obamacare."

The calorie labels are, in fact, a government health mandate in Obamacare, I noted.

"Well, that changes things a bit," he said. "I thought this was more of a voluntary thing. Now I'm not quite sure how I feel about it."