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Does Posting Calorie Counts Change What We Order?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Starting Monday, calorie counts are required for companies with more than 20 locations. It's all part of a labeling requirement of the Affordable Care Act that was passed in 2010. Some large chains started putting calorie on their menus at that time, but it's now required for the big ones.

So does that change what we order? Good Question.

"The research shows that for most people no," says Lisa Harnack, a nutritional epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "We find that people tend to think nutrition is less important when they're eating out than when they're grocery shopping. So they may think, oh, it's a special occasion, I don't need to worry."

Panera Bread was one of the first restaurants chains to post calorie information on its menus in 2010.

"We noticed customers looking for that information will change what they order, but it's usually the customers looking for it in the first place," says Panera Dietitian Katie Kriegshauser.

One major study that questioned New Yorkers who ate at fast-food restaurants in 2013 (after labeling) and compared their answers to a survey done in 2008 (before labeling). Those researchers found no change in calories consumed.

Another study used information from Starbucks transactions and found calorie consumption dropped 6 percent.

"The effect is almost entirely related to changes in consumers' food choices – there is almost no change in purchases of beverage calories," the study's authors wrote.

Another impact of posting calories could be that restaurants change their menu options to include healthier choices. Harnack says that will require further study.

Harnack says this is a difficult topic to research because only a few large chains now post calorie information. People are also notoriously bad a estimating calorie intake.

She says much more research will be done now that the new calorie requirements are in place.

"As a researcher, this is a very exciting day," she says.

In general, experts recommend eating between 2,000 and 2,500 calories each day, but given America's obesity problem, it's clear people are getting far more than that.  For more information on how many calories, protein, sugar and dairy an individual should eat visit this website from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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