The Subtle Typographical Art of a Chicken McNugget Poster

New McDonald’s ad slogan: “You can’t handle the truth.”  

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, restaurants with 20 or more locations will have to start displaying calorie counts on their menus later this year. However, here in New York City, chains have been required to do so since the Bloomberg administration. While stopping at a local McDonald’s to grab breakfast this morning, I came came across a pretty amusing attempt to circumvent the spirit of the law. Check out this poster.

Jordan Weissmann

No, 50 chicken McNuggets are not 470 calories (how I wish). Look closely, and you’ll notice some fine print stating that the calorie count is based on a single serving, and 50 McNuggets should serve 5 adults. So, we’re actually talking about a 2,350-calorie box of food product. Now, in person, the text is definitely large enough to read if you stop and look. It’s just dwarfed by all the text around it, so someone giving the sign a passing glance might miss it entirely. I doubt McDonald’s really expects anybody to believe that more than four dozen fried chicken nubs contain fewer calories than a Big Mac. But the company is clearly obfuscating some of the real nutrition info through the power of graphic design.

And from what I can tell, signs like this might be banned once the national rules come into effect. Here’s the relevant commentary on the final rule, which the Food and Drug Administration released in December. It’s dense, but basically says that you can’t read a nutrition label without information about portion sizes, so they should be the same font size as the calorie counts (which in turn shouldn’t be any smaller than the item’s name).  

(Response 120) We agree that the serving or unit of a standard menu item that is a self-service food or food on display used to determine the calorie content for such food must be included in the calorie declaration. Without information about the serving or unit of a self-service food or food on display, the consumer would not be able to ascertain the calorie content of the amount of food that would be consumed. This would defeat the purpose of the calorie declaration. Therefore, we have revised § 101.11(b)(2)(iii)(A) to require that the calorie declaration for foods on display and self-service food include the serving or unit on which the calorie content is based. The requirements in§ 101.11(b)(2)(iii)(A)(3)(ii) for font size and color will apply to the entire calorie declaration, including the serving or unit used to determine calorie content. (See the discussion of § 101.11(b)(2)(iii)(A)(3)(ii) in section XVII.E.2.)

In any event, consider this an object lesson in why writing good regulations are tricky. It’s not clear that mandating calorie counts will actually convince Americans to make healthier eating choices. But it’d be a pity if creative typography fooled diners into thinking they were making a healthier decision than they really were.