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Ontario to make fast-food chains put calorie counts on menus – but will it help?

** FILE ** A Big Mac, Coke and fries are shown at a McDonald's, Oct. 20, 2005 in New York.

MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

With the announcement on Wednesday that the Ontario government will require calorie counts on the menus of larger food chains within months, the province joins a growing number of jurisdictions across North America using the law to mitigate the power of the fast-food industry. The hope, of course, is that these moves might make a difference with the stubborn problem of obesity, especially in children.

New York, for one, has had similar regulations in place since 2008 (not to mention Mayor Michael Bloomberg's failed attempt to deep-six sugary drink servings), and the United States is set to implement national regulations requiring calorie counts on menus by next year.

But does knowing the calorie count of a Big Mac make any of us – adults or children – choose more wisely? Is the idea any better than what other activists propose, such as banning soft drinks from schools, taxing junk food or nixing toys in McDonald's Happy Meals?

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Consumer research is conclusive: We underestimate the caloric content in fast food. A Harvard study published in the British Medical Journal this year found that two-thirds of participants underestimated the calories they were ordering at chain restaurants and about 25 per cent of them were off by at least 500 calories. But once we know what we're eating, despite any gains in awareness, we are still okay with ordering big. A 2012 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that even when McDonald's customers in New York were reminded about calorie recommendations, they failed to curb their orders.

But a 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research done in Starbucks found that posting the data did appear to reduce the "average calories per transaction" by 6 per cent, so it may be too early to know if governments can teach old dogs new tricks.

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