This morning, Starbucks announced that starting next Tuesday it will post the calorie content of all its coffee drinks and food items in all its company-owned stores in the U.S.
This is big news, and overdue. For many people who don't want to think about calories, or think they have a good idea of the calories in what they're eating, Starbucks is the first place they experience sticker shock -- the 460-calorie blueberry scone that's a quarter of the 2000 calories many women aim to eat every day, the seemingly healthful slice of banana-walnut bread that's 490 calories. But then you can look for and find lower-calorie items on the menu that's labeled (at Starbucks, for instance, bagels under 300 calories), and start to acquire a sense of the calorie count of what you're regularly ordering out and eating at home -- the real utility of calorie labeling.
The FDA was supposed to release national rules for the national labeling required of all restaurants with at least 20 locations -- one of the best, if least-noticed, parts of the Affordable Care Act. Years later, food-industry skirmishes and rumored cold feet by the White House Office of Management and Budget are still holding up those rules, as Marion Nestle recently documented. My home state of Massachusetts passed a statewide calorie-labeling law in 2009; it never got implemented, so restaurants would not need to retool menus once the ACA rules went into national effect. That's four years of lost opportunity to modify eating behavior. And even after the rules come out, which the FDA says now will be by the end of this year, there'll be at least another year to wait for them to be implemented.
In the meantime, initial studies of the
effects of menu labeling on behavior and weight reduction produced mixed
results, to the delight of the food industry. But, as I wrote here,
there will always be plenty of people who decide they don't want the food police telling them what to
want to splurge, they'll order more calories for better bang for the buck. That's all fine.
point of public health is not to dictate personal behavior, however many times the soda industry dresses Mayor Bloomberg as a nanny. The point is to make the default food environment more
healthful, and mandatory calorie labeling has an important curbing
effect on businesses that don't want to look like they're only offering
high-calorie, unhealthy offerings. Starbucks itself made its own default
milk choice 2 percent rather than whole, to get ahead of the sticker shock it knew would come once
calorie labeling became the rule in New York City.
One of the less discouraging early studies on consumer behavior, conducted by Stanford researchers at Starbucks stores in New York City, which had calorie labeling, and Boston and Philadelphia, which didn't yet, showed that people did consciously order lower-calorie items after the information was in their faces every time they made a purchase. Starbucks didn't take the news as encouragement, though; when I wrote about that and other more-encouraging studies, a spokeswoman implied that the company would wait until national standards were in place before implementing labeling anyplace it didn't have to.