Ontario residents will literally find something new on the menu in 2017, as calorie count listings become mandatory for menus and menu boards at chain restaurants with more than 20 locations.
The new law, which went into effect on January 1, is intended to help consumers make healthier choices when ordering fast food. It’s all part of an effort to fight obesity in a province where more than half the population is either overweight or obese.
Ontario is the first Canadian province to pass such a law, which will also apply to convenience stores, grocery stores, movie theaters and coffee shops. All foods and beverages will require calorie information listed on menus, menu boards, food labels and even food posters.
Ontario Health Ministry spokesperson Shae Greenfield said:
“Ontario families have made it clear that they want more information and support to help them make healthier choices when dining out.
“This is the strongest legislation of its kind in Canada and closely aligns with the need to address province-wide health issues like obesity.”
But will the new law really help with Ontario’s obesity problem?
Are food labeling laws effective?
Even proponents of the new law admit that its implementation is likely to have a limited effect on the average person’s ordering habits, but for those who are already health-conscious, the listings will be a useful tool.
Internal medicine specialist and weight management expert, Dr. Sean Wharton, told CBC News:
“From an overall population level, I’m not so sure it’ll have the big impact that we’re actually looking for.
“I don’t think it’s going to decrease weight from a population basis, but I think an informed consumer is better at making choices and making judgements.”
It’s difficult to prove any real benefit from the implementation of such measures. New York City passed a similar law in 2008, and experts are still trying to determine if it has made any impact at all.
A 2012 study found that customers at two New York City McDonald’s locations tended to, if anything, buy higher calorie meals after the labeling law was passed.
Another more recent study found that the NYC calorie listing law “plausibly reduced the obesity rate by 2.5 percentage points.”
The evidence so far suggests that calorie labeling has a minimal effect at best for the general population, but that it will help those who are actively trying to manage their weight. Experts and health authorities argue that consumers have a right to be informed so that they can make healthy choices.
“I think it’s important for consumers to have choice,” said Joe Belfontaine, executive director of Ontario’s Heart and Stroke Foundation. “I think it’s important for consumers to have the right information.”
Did food industry lobbyists prevent sodium level listings from being required along with calorie counts?
Some have argued that the new law doesn’t go far enough, and that a food industry lobbying firm which led public consultations and wrote a report for the food labeling initiative on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Health was instrumental in preventing sodium level listings from also being required on menus, along with calorie counts.
Ontario parliament member France Gelinas said:
“The Ministry of Health knew who they were hiring, and it stinks. It’s terrible.”
Food labeling laws, watered-down or not, are unlikely to make a huge dent in obesity rates. Although such labeling is undoubtedly useful for a small percentage of the population, the question is whether the cost to restaurant chains is worth the benefit for the few consumers who actually count their calories when ordering a fast food meal.
Tackling obesity begins with the individual, and anyone who is truly serious about losing weight should be avoiding fast food and restaurant chains to begin with.