Anyone who eats at McDonald’s (MCD) in the U.S. next week—and 25 million people do on any given day—will get a chance to experience the angst that New Yorkers have felt for four years. Calories, those enigmatic numbers that often seem to correlate strongly with taste and health (though in opposite ways), are about to debut on the fast-food chain’s menu boards nationwide.
On the bright side, data suggest McDonald’s customers will eat less. That’s what happened in New York City after April 2008, when every morsel a chain restaurant sold had to suddenly have its calories posted for all to see. Stanford researchers found that, at Starbucks (SBUX) at least, the move resulted in customers eating 6 percent fewer calories per transaction. (The finding only applied to food. When it came to gulping back a venti white chocolate mocha with whipped cream, consumers didn’t care about the 620 calories that came with their caffeine fix.)
Calories can inspire a range of emotions that may or may not reflect on fears about weight. I happened to be in line at Qdoba (JACK) on the day the “fresh Mex” chain first posted its calories in Manhattan. The impact was dramatic. How, we wanted to know, could a simple burrito vary by several hundred calories, to the point where two burritos could exceed many adults’ average daily needs? The answer, of course, was in the guacamole and the sour cream and the cheddar cheese, along with a little cilantro-lime rice, black beans, and shredded beef. My friend decided to skip the guacamole and added some zero-calorie lettuce to bulk it up. I said no to sour cream, which I’d never liked that much in the first place. Neither of us, for some reason, ever ate at Qdoba again.
A lot of Americans are already used to digesting calorie counts with their fast food, thanks to laws in states such as California and Vermont, as well as the policies of heart-hugging chains like Panera Bread (PNRA). But it could take years to figure out what this knowledge does to your mind. Subway, for some of my friends, will never be a splurge—no matter how much melted cheese they put on a meatball sandwich. They’ve seen too much of Jared Fogle, the man who dropped several pants sizes by eating there twice a day, and posters hawking a half-dozen sandwiches with no more than 6 grams of fat. For others, fried chicken never tasted the same once they knew their lunch put them in the four-digit calorie range.
Even this morning, as I looked over the baked goods tray at Starbucks, I found myself debating a cake slice for 390 calories vs. a muffin at 360. I went with the slice. I’m not trying to lose weight or gain weight, but somewhere in the back of my mind was the suggestion that 30 extra calories means something tastes better. (Do I recall how many calories came with the chai latte? No, Stanford researchers, I do not.)
Will McDonald’s customers gravitate to “Favorites Under 400” once they feel the full frontal assault of the calorie count for a Big Mac and large fries? Maybe. But anyone operating under the illusion that a mayo-drenched hamburger was health food hasn’t been conscious during the fast-food debates. My bet is that people will continue to get their favorites. The only difference will be their mood at the end of the meal.