This week McDonald's, which already lists all its nutritional information online, will also start displaying the details on menus for its 14,000 U.S. restaurants and drive-throughs.
But does your family care about the 500 calories in the fast-food giant's large fries, the 550 calories in its Big Mac, or the 930 calories in its 16-ounce McFlurry with M&M's?
Government officials think so, since they are going to require all restaurants with at least 20 locations to make the big calorie reveal on menus at a not-yet-decided date after the presidential election. (Some places, like California and New York City, already force eateries to publicly show the good, the bad, and the ugly information.)
But surveys by the NPD Group indicate you may just shrug. Only 9 percent of consumers are trying to eat healthy fare when they dine away from home, according to the market-research giant, which tracks how consumers use restaurants. "They want to indulge a bit when they go out," says restaurant-industry analyst Bonnie Riggs, the primary author of an NPD report called "How Consumers Define Healthy Eating When They Go Out to Eat." "You're not going to change that behavior just because you list the calorie counts."
And even the 9 percent who say they're looking for healthier options may not choose them. "They may walk into that restaurant with that intention," says Riggs. "That's not necessarily what they buy."
An earlier NPD study described a sandwich using words like "low fat," "organic," and "all natural." Participants turned up their noses. "What they told us is they thought it wasn't going to taste good, it wasn't going to be as satisfying, not as filling, and you were going to charge me more for it," says Riggs. "You really have to be careful how you position and price these kinds of things if you want consumers to purchase them."
Even with full disclosure, most families will keep eating out and ordering their favorite dishes, regardless of calorie counts, says Riggs. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink…The masses are not going to change their behavior, but the industry has done the right thing."
Most Americans aren't clueless. "They have a good idea of how many calories a bun is," says Riggs. "They already know that from things they look at at home."
So what do families care about? Regardless of whether they're talking about eating at a fast-food restaurant or a high-end place, people said "fresh ingredients" is most important to them when it comes to healthy eating, according to NPD Group research. "Quality was the No. 1 thing," says Riggs. Consumers also ranked "well-balanced food groups," "right portions," "grilled," "salads," "no fried food," and "chicken" ahead of "low calorie." "Calories, fat, sodium, organic – all of that was way low," says Riggs.
On NBC's "Tonight Show," after she won her all-around gold medal in gymnastics, Gabby Douglas told Michelle Obama that she had eaten a McDonald's breakfast sandwich. (She said, "Sorry!") Most families aren't 'fessing up to the First Lady. But they're just saying yes, not no, to their favorite foods, even if they know they contain hundreds of calories.
What about your family? Can you resist the McFlurry, now that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's a calorie bomb? And will you be able to just say no to a fancy restaurant's profiteroles when you're staring at a high-triple-digit number next to them on the menu? (My daughter says the information would "ruin it!") Or would you savor the desserts anyway – and eat celery sticks at home?
For more stories about healthy families, read: