Poring over Starbucks’ (SBUX) offerings here in Maryland involves quite a few more numbers than scanning its coffees back home in Ohio and in many other states — thanks to Maryland legislation that mandates calorie counts on chain restaurants’ menus.
Those of you that are sweetly, blissfully ignorant: Enjoy it while you can. It’s about to come to an end.
Starbucks has announced that it’s rolling out calorie tallies across the nation starting next week, and there’s no big mystery why. The FDA has been working on national menu-labeling rules ever since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010 — rules that are expected to be rolled out this year.
For those who haven’t seen these menus, the concept’s as simple as it sounds: Calorie counts will be posted next to all menu items, including a specific number for each available portion size, as well as add ins/toppings.
The goal is equally as apparent: Get people to think about what they’re putting into their bodies.
And think they will. Starbucks has some shockingly impressive numbers to bandy about to its customers. As The Atlantic points out, a blueberry scone or a slice of walnut banana bread — at 460 and 490 calories, respectively — will eat up a fifth to a quarter of the FDA’s recommended daily caloric intake, depending on whether you’re male or female. An iced white chocolate mocha will set you back 640 calories — 30 calories more than McDonald’s (MCD) new Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder.
Take a moment to do a double-take. I know I had to.
You might have known McDonald’s newest Quarter Pounder has 610 calories, even if you don’t live in a state with menu requirements, because MCD and a few other major chains have already outrun Starbucks by tossing up calorie counts nationwide.
And Starbucks points at previous studies which show such postings actually lead people toward lower-calorie offerings. Other studies, though, haven’t gone as well. Marion Nestle, in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported poor results, with a caveat:
“Shortly after the labeling began, investigators collected cash-register receipts and survey responses from more than 1100 fast-food customers in low-income New York City neighborhoods and in Newark, New Jersey, a city with comparable low-income neighborhoods but no menu labeling. Although nearly 28% of New York customers said they noticed and were influenced by calorie labeling, this group purchased about the same number of calories as everyone else. This result might be expected, since these outlets were located in areas with little choice in restaurants and where residents might be likely to seek low-cost foods that are high in calories.”
It’s still worth acknowledging the potential both for people to avoid high-calorie items, or at least use those numbers throughout the day (you might buy the mocha as your big-bang treat for the day, then adjust the rest of your meals to fit within the recommended daily intake).
But it’s also worth acknowledging that calories aren’t the whole story, and that lower-cal isn’t always better.
As an example, let’s look back at that iced mocha and habanero QPC. While that burger saves you roughly 30 calories, it also has 5 more grams of fat than the mocha’s 27, plus its 1,189 mg of sodium accounts for roughly half of the daily recommended value. The iced mocha posts a big, fat zero in the sodium column.
Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction, and likely an easier one for SBUX to take than other major chains.
That’s because SBUX’s base product is pretty darn healthy. A plain ol’ Starbucks brewed coffee has just 5 calories. Tazo tea? Zip. You can even get cappuccinos, lattes and iced coffees with syrup for under 100 calories. Meanwhile, you have coffee’s myriad other health benefits; it has a high antioxidant content, and some studies have shown that it protects against type 2 diabetes, liver cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Not to mention, it’s a lot harder to kick a caffeine habit than to get on the Big Mac wagon.
Kyle Woodley is the Deputy Managing Editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he held long positions in SBUX and MCD via exchange-traded funds. Follow him on Twitter at @IPKyleWoodley.