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McDonald's starts counting calories: Will it turn off customers?
Visitors to McDonald's restaurants across the country will soon notice a difference on the menu boards — gut-busting calorie counts. Welcome change or buzzkill?
 
A sample menu from McDonald's Corporation shows how the calories will be listed for each menu item, from a Big Mac (550) to a chocolate shake (710).
A sample menu from McDonald's Corporation shows how the calories will be listed for each menu item, from a Big Mac (550) to a chocolate shake (710).
CC BY: McDonaldsCorp

This week, McDonald's announced that it would begin posting calorie counts on all its menus nationwide beginning next week, a seemingly ballsy move that experts say could have repercussions throughout the fast-food industry. McDonald's already showcases calorie counts at its restaurants in New York City, Philadelphia, and the entire state of California, and the expansion anticipates a provision in President Obama's health care overhaul that will require national chains with 20 restaurants or more to post calorie counts. However, McDonald's is far out in front of the government deadline, which hasn't even been set yet. Here, a guide to McDonald's decision:

Why is McDonald's posting calorie counts now?
McDonald's claims that it wants to educate customers. "We recognize customers want to know more about the nutrition content of the food and beverages they order," says Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA. "We are pleased to add to the ways we make nutrition information available to our customers and employees."

Really?
It's a little more complicated than Fields' canned press quote might suggest. The move is a public-relations victory, Tim Calkins, a marketing professor, tells The Christian Science Monitor, bolstering the perception that McDonald's is "a leader in terms of transparency." In truth, McDonald's wasn't exactly a huge supporter of ObamaCare. "They fought and fought and fought against this, and now they act like they wanted it all the time," Kelly Brownell, a food policy expert, tells USA Today.

Will the move turn off customers?
It hasn't so far. Fields says "calorie counts in New York and other markets didn't translate to any significant change in customers' eating habits," says Schuyler Velasco at The Christian Science Monitor. "McDonald's isn't taking a major risk." So it's unclear whether the move will even make customers healthier eaters. Studies show mixed results from posting calorie counts, though some experts argue that "calorie counters might start to become a bigger factor as consumers gain more familiarity with them," says Stephanie Strom at The New York Times.

Will other chains follow suit?
Probably. With 14,000 "locations around the country," McDonald's is "by far the largest chain to post calorie counts nationwide," says Strom. Other chains like Wendy's and Burger King will certainly feel the pressure to be as transparent as their main competitor. McDonald's is also putting pressure on its burger rivals by expanding its selection of healthier foods, introducing, for example, a new "breakfast sandwich made with egg whites on a whole grain English muffin (working title: the Egg White Delight)," says Velasco.

Can customers expect any surprises?
Perhaps. The Big Mac, at 550 calories, isn't close to being the biggest calorie bomb. The Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese is 750 calories, while the breakfast platter — featuring hot cakes, eggs, a sausage patty, and more — is 1,150 calories. (The FDA recommends consuming 2,000 calories a day.) And a  sensible-sounding option like the Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken is 450 calories, 10 more than a greasy Double Cheeseburger. 

Sources: The Atlantic, The Associated PressThe Christian Science Monitor, USA TodayThe Wall Street Journal

 

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