McDonald's calories
McDonald's (MCD) new ad campaign highlighting its "Favorites Under 400 Calories" isn't just an attempt by the company to highlight its healthier items during the Olympics; it's probably a preview of what's to come from restaurants around the country.

A provision in the Affordable Care Act will require some restaurants and other food vendors to display calorie information right on the menu. That has some companies, like McDonald's, trying to get ahead of the curve.

Since low-calorie food isn't normally a selling point at McDonald's, the company's using an age-old political move: Control the message, don't let it control you.

McDonald's isn't ready to advertise that the Big Mac has 550 calories and an order of large fries has 500 calories, but it is hoping that showing it offers some options that won't exceed your daily calorie limit in a single sitting is the right move. The Filet-O-Fish (380 calories), Fruit & Maple Oatmeal (290 calories), and Egg McMuffin (300 calories) are currently highlighted in the campaign, and menu changes are rolling out.

You won't see calorie counts on every menu overnight. (The Food & Drug Administration is still making rules that will affect not only restaurants, but also vending machine owners.) What we do know is that a chain with 20 or more locations will have to comply with the new rules and display calories on its menus. At fast-food chains, that means calorie amounts will be listed on the menu board or drive-through sign, and at sit-down restaurants, that means it'll be listed on the menus you're handed.

From picking up your morning Starbucks (SBUX) to finishing your last beer at Fuddruckers, you'll be able to tally calories nearly everywhere you go.

I'll Have a Salad and Water Instead

The goal of the rule (like it or not) is to give consumers more information about what they're eating. The Department of Agriculture recommends a roughly 2,000-calorie daily diet for adults. That puts a quick meal at McDonald's or Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) -- where you can easily hit that daily allotment in a single sitting -- in perspective.

But will people change their behavior, or will restaurants be more conscious about the calories in their foods?

There is some precedent here. New York City has implemented rules about displaying calories, and individual companies have tried full caloric disclosure in the past. In 2005, Ruby Tuesday tested putting calories on its menu, only to later discontinue the practice. (Apparently consumers did change their eating habits when calories were displayed out in the open.)

The first to test displaying calories in a big way this time around is Buffalo Wild Wings. The company is putting calories on its menu now, well before the rule rolls out. It's a risky move -- will people avoid buying a 1,020-calorie Buffalo Ranch Chicken Wrap when they have that 2,000-calorie daily limit in mind?

McDonald's has a more proactive strategy -- in addition to displaying calorie counts, it is offering new, healthier fare for consumers who are overwhelmed to learn how many points are packed into a Big Mac.

We'll know in the next six months or so if the chain sees a big change in behavior or if people choose taste over waist.



Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium does not have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of McDonald's, Starbucks, and Buffalo Wild Wings. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Buffalo Wild Wings, McDonald's, and Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended writing covered calls on Buffalo Wild Wings and Starbucks.


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35 Comments

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crivera2354

obama is a pipe blower

August 07 2012 at 11:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
hazel

WHEN WE GO TO MICKEY DS WE DON;T COUNT CALORIES WE GO TO ENJOY SOMETHING BAD FOR US WHEN IS MC RIB COMEING BACK ?????

August 07 2012 at 11:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sequoia1952

So, what's the BIG news here? MacDonalds has had menu/calories posted in plain view in San Jose CA long before the Olympics, at least a year or more!
Claude DeMoss
San Jose CA
Sequoia1952@aol.com

August 07 2012 at 11:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
domicileappraise

If it tastes decent, I'm all for it. Brown lettuce, though, doesn't cut it for me. Mc Muffin I love but hold the cheese.

August 07 2012 at 11:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
geomag1

Government interference will add $$ to our food bill
Like food to Fuel "ethanol "
Less Government More Food

August 07 2012 at 11:17 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to geomag1's comment
pm349

Absolutely right about the ethanol fiasco. The price of corn is going through the roof due to severe draught, but the government wants more corn diverted to fuel. The mid-western senators are up in arms and trying to prevent this. Grocery prices are easily going to go up on bread, cereal and meat due to the draught. Don't make it worse.

August 10 2012 at 10:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jambroney

I don't see how providing information is such a bad thing, or how it's un-American. This isn't about our government burning books or giving us mandatory bedtimes. This isn't about "big brother" saying what you can or cannot eat. It's about providing us with data.

And really, do you want to support companies like Ruby Tuesday, who hide information about a product so more people will buy it? There will always be a market for over-the-top restaurant meals. This shouldn't destroy restaurant profits, unless a particular business model depends on misleading consumers to think food is healthier than it is.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. I guess there has to be a really compelling counterargument I don't know about in order for people to be so polarized against nutrition data in menus.

August 07 2012 at 10:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jambroney's comment
Ray

Shouldn't you be adult enough to already know what you are eating. Do you really think the government should dictate anything like this?

August 07 2012 at 12:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
magus47

Oh goodie. More healthy food form McDanaolds, like those God awful apples they put in the Happy meals. If that's what healthy tastes like bring on the junk food.
I really wish the government would MIND THERE OWN BUSINESS. Didn't that great experiment on controling behavior, prohibition, end in failure? What a country. You can buy a assault rifle over the counter, but ya can't get a 32 ounce drink in New York.
The only way ya gonna bet my Big Mac is when Ya pry it from my cold dead hand.

August 07 2012 at 10:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gene Tebbe

We as Americans purchase foods that taste good to us and the hell with their sodium, fat and sugar contents. You will NEVER be able to get us to automatically eat what is good for us. The government needs to give us trying and forget about it. Perhaps medical care needs to be assessed fees according to your weight, or other medical difficulties.....at least this would be an incentive to eat better.

August 07 2012 at 10:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frank

A multi grain or whole wheat bun would be nice....also, the MUST reduce some of the sodium.

August 07 2012 at 10:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
runswthscisors40

More Government.......I'm Lovin' it..........NOT!

August 07 2012 at 10:17 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply