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See the menu -- see the calories

Many New York City chain restaurants will soon clearly display the total count. Health advocates hope the nation follows suit.

December 25, 2006|Emily Sohn | Special to The Times

Chicken tenders, a baked potato and a slice of carrot cake. A tad indulgent, perhaps -- but not too awful, right? In fact, a five-piece order of Arby's chicken tenders has 630 calories. A baked potato with butter and sour cream at Ruby Tuesday has 459 calories. And a slice of carrot cake at the Cheesecake Factory packs 1,560 calories.

After years of grand-slam breakfasts and ever-expanding dinner platters, we may not be eating calorie-blind for much longer. In a much-trumpeted move, New York City health officials voted Dec. 5 to bar all restaurants and bakeries, with minor exceptions, from using more than minuscule amounts of trans fats in their foods.

At the same time -- in a move that got far less attention -- they also voted to force chain restaurants that already offer nutritional information to display the calorie count of their fare on menus or menu boards -- hard-to-miss revelations that will probably come as shockers to many consumers at restaurants ranging from McDonald's to Denny's.

The move, to take effect next year, was hailed by the nutrition advocates, doctor groups and politicians who have spent years fighting for similar measures across the country against dogged industry resistance. Like smoking bans, they say, such a move could do wonders for people's health by cajoling them to clean up their eating acts while providing incentives for restaurants to offer healthier fare.

Cities and states around the country are watching closely to see what the effects are in New York City. Some may follow suit. Chicago is considering not only banning trans fats in restaurants that make more than $20 million a year but also requiring restaurants that make $10 million or more to print calorie, sodium and saturated fat counts on menus in sizes large enough to be easily read. Los Angeles and New Jersey are also considering restaurant labeling measures, and more are expected in the new legislative session starting next month.

"This legislation is really quite groundbreaking," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He believes that health officials should take diet-busting menus as seriously as E. coli outbreaks.

"If you eat food and it makes you sick immediately, they're all over it," he says. "But if it kills you over a longer period of time, there has not been a precedent for jurisdiction. Now there is."

In some ways, the move is not as profound as it might at first seem. Calorie counts and other nutritional information have been available in some eateries for years -- but only for the diner who knows where to look or bothers to ask for them.

McDonald's, for example, started providing fat and calorie counts to customers in the mid-1980s as part of a settlement with several state attorneys general over charges that the chain was misrepresenting its chicken nugget ingredients. At the same time, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC and Jack in the Box agreed to do likewise. Although the original agreement lasted a year, all these companies still provide nutritional information.

And more restaurants are jumping on board to inform curious consumers, including well-known chains such as Arby's, Starbucks and Red Lobster (the latter just gives facts for lighter fare). Today, about half of restaurant chains voluntarily offer this information through brochures, websites, posters and in-store computers. In addition, a new industry-backed website, www.healthydiningfinder.com, offers nutrition facts for just a handful of healthy choices from tens of thousands of restaurants around the country. The site will officially launch in March.

Such voluntary efforts are more effective than mandates, says National Restaurant Assn. spokesperson Sue Hensley.

For consumer advocates, however, these voluntary efforts are far from enough. For one thing, they say, it's not ideal that people have to actively request the information -- besides, it's often not available anyway. In a study published this month in the journal Preventive Medicine, researchers at the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., found nutrition information was available at only 60% of the district's McDonald's outlets. The researchers often had to ask two or more employees before they got it.

And even when nutrition facts are available, they're usually stashed at cash registers, on tray liners or online, and people don't see the numbers until too late, says Margo Wootan, CSPI's director of nutrition policy.

That's why Wootan and others favor a rule that, like the one in New York, requires nutritional information be placed on the menu or menu board. Such regulations, she says, should spur restaurants to offer healthier options, just as new trans fat-labeling requirements on grocery store-bought foods inspired food producers to reformulate recipes. Lab analyses, she adds, show that chains can accurately estimate the calorie counts of standardized menu items.

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