A Federal judge ruled yesterday, Wednesday 16th April, that the calorie value of dishes must be shown alongside prices in some restaurants in New York City.

The New York State Restaurant Association had made a First Amendment claim against the City’s authorities who had introduced a ruling requiring chain food restaurants show the calorie value of their dishes alongside prices in menus and display boards.

But Judge Richard J Holwell of the United States District Court in Manhattan rejected their claims. In a 27 page document describing his opinion, Judge Holwell accepted the argument that showing calorie values alongside prices will help consumers make choices that will lead to a lower incidence of obesity.

The judge’s ruling means that any restaurant chain with 15 or more nationwide outlets will have to display calorie counts on menus, menu display boards and food tags. The health department told the New York Times this covers about 10 per cent of the City’s restaurants, around 2,000 in all.

The ruling is due to take effect on Monday, but the restaurant association said it would be asking for it to be held back pending an appeal.

A spokesman for the restaurant association told the Times that if the ruling went ahead and then had to be withdrawn after a successful appeal, it would cause “irreparable harm”.

The association maintains that restaurants should make their own decision whether to show the calorie count of a dish on the menu, as with any other information about the nutritional value of the food it serves.

Many restaurant chains already show calorie information, except in a different format.

The First Amendment argument the restaurant association put forward was that complying with the ruling constituted a violation of the right to disagree with the government’s message, which is what in effect they were being forced to convey.

The judge rejected this argument on the grounds that providing calorie counts was “reasonably related” to the government’s interest to provide consumers with “accurate nutritional information”.

New York City’s commissioner for health, Dr Thomas Frieden, told the New York Times that Judge Holwell’s decision was a “victory for New Yorkers”.

He said the ruling means consumers will have the information they need when they need it. At the point when they make a choice about what to eat.

The argument is that like price, calories are part of the “cost-benefit” decision. There will be times when the thought process of the consumer will be “that dish looks yummy, the price is reasonable, but yikes, look at the calorie value, perhaps I will go for that other one that is nearly the same but has lower calories”. And at other times they may say, “what the heck, I haven’t eaten many high calorie meals this week, I’ll treat myself!”

The point is they make an informed decision, and the hope is that in the interest of their own health, by realising the calorie value of dishes they will tend to choose the healthier option, and eat the less healthy ones less often.

On the other hand, the market forces argument the restaurant association appears to be putting forward is that if consumers want to eat in restaurants where the calorie count is shown alongside prices, then they will choose those restaurants to eat in. So by leaving it up to the restaurants to decide what to show, they are then free to find their own “market niche”.

The problem however, at the public health level, is that the obesity crisis is here and now, and time is running out. In the public interest, some interventions may have to overrule the “market forces” argument, by making it difficult to ignore calorie information. And it is hoped that by doing so, more people, more often than not, will choose healthier meals.

New Yorkers interviewed by the New York Daily News appeared to welcome the ruling. One retired teacher from Manhattan said “the more information the better,” and another woman from Queen’s said she normally made her menu choice based on “the picture and my appetite,” but “this will raise my awareness,” she said.

Sources: New York Times, New York Daily News.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD