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.