McDonald's takes the lead in clarifying normal portion sizes

By Cari Price, corporate development chef at Food IQ.

Controversy is brewing over a recent proposal made by New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to restrict the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters, and many other foodservice establishments within the city's jurisdiction. If this proposal passes, it will be the first foodservice portion control measure mandated by the government. Incidentally, New York City was also the first to implement a citywide smoking ban and trans fat ban, which has encouraged a number of other cities to follow. Some may think this measure is extreme. But the unanswered question still remains, why in a society obsessed with being thin, has it never been so easy to be fat?

Sadly, Americans have struggled with weight gain for decades. Even with the desire to make the right choices, it is simply difficult to do so with the temptation that exists in the marketplace. Today, nearly two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese. The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm that conducted a report on the subject in 2007, actually discovered that "Americans are increasingly experimenting with incorporating aspects of moderation into their lifestyles." When the study concluded five years ago, results showed that "minimizing" is increasingly "in" and "supersizing" is increasingly "out". Part of the study evaluated the portion control challenges consumers face when eating at home, work, restaurants and while shopping. By no surprise, consumers were most challenged when dining out since the majority of Americans don't realize what constitutes a "normal" food portion.

Soon after the Hartman Group study, many snack food manufacturers delighted health-conscious consumers with individually packaged 100-calorie portion packs. These products have taken the guesswork out of portioning popular, tempting snacks such as crackers, chips, and cookies. Having been offered in the grocery store segment for years now, the trend is now catching on in restaurants.

McDonald's has taken an educational approach by categorizing their low-calorie offerings. Marketed under the banner of "Favorites Under 400 Calories", including nearly 80 percent of their current menu items, the new regrouping of the menu features items under 400, 300, 200 and even 100 calories each.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is finalizing measures requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to disclose calorie counts on menu boards. Neil Golden, McDonald's USA chief marketing officer, claims McDonald's has implemented this new categorization because they "want consumers to understand that they have the food they love and food that they can feel good about enjoying regularly."

McDonald's new calorie communication approach is expected to be a big success in clarifying "normal" portion sizes. The calorie-counting method seems to be the easiest format for consumers to understand when it comes to portion control. As far as menu development goes, offerings can more easily be modified to smaller portions rather than reformulating ingredients to fit calorie parameters.

If this method of calorie labeling works for portion control, would there still be reason to ban large portion sizes, as New York City government suggests? I think we can all agree that giving consumers the tools to make informed decisions, with a little work to reorganize our menus and product offerings, will in the long run be more successful than simply limiting consumers' choices.

Cari Price is corporate development chef at Food IQ. Her background in nutrition, and experience in food marketing and the restaurant industry, gives her clients a unique advantage in the development of strategically relevant menu ideas.

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