How sloppy is that triple Whopper with cheese? It has 1,250 calories, or 62.5% of the recommended 2,000-calories-per-day diet. The Fried Macaroni and Cheese from the Cheesecake Factory? Try 1,570 calories–according to health experts, you’re better off eating a stick of butter.
If public-health advocates, and now the Senate, get their way, when you look at a menu from a chain restaurant, those calorie counts will be staring you down. “Order me if you dare,” the mighty Quesadilla Burger from Applebee’s may entreat. Spurred by the passage of a slew of state and local menu-labeling laws, on June 10 the Senate reached a bipartisan agreement to include a federal menu-labeling law as part of comprehensive health-care reform. Of course, who knows when that hornet’s nest will come up for a vote. But in the meantime, health proponents are likening the Senate provision to legal requirements for a clothing label–i.e., what it’s made of. “Isn’t information that can help you avoid obesity and diabetes as important as knowing how to wash your blouse” says Margot Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the nonpartisan Center for Science in the Public Interest. Until recently, the restaurant industry had been pushing a federal bill that would require chains with 20 or more restaurants nationwide to post calorie information somewhere near the point of purchase but not on the menu itself. The industry claimed menu postings would be a costly logistical burden and would clutter valuable real estate on the menus. Not surprisingly, chains won’t voice the most obvious argument against high-profile calorie counts. “They’re concerned that consumers will be turned off by what they see,” says Tom Forte, restaurant analyst at the Telsey Advisory Group, a consulting firm. In the end, the industry backed the Senate’s on-the-menu provision in an effort to pre-empt a patchwork of state and local statutes . Such legislation would prevent a municipality from requiring both calories and, say, saturated fat to be tallied on menus. As the menu-labeling momentum keeps surging, will such policy really improve eating habits Well, it can do no worse than what’s out there. In a study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers observed 4,311 patrons of McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain to see if they accessed in-store nutrition data. The info was not on the menu board but in a pamphlet, on a wall poster or an on-site computer. Only six, or 0.1%, of the patrons looked at the numbers. Sure, a few more may have already studied the information. But six out of 4,311 If restaurants are sincere about health, they need to put calorie counts on the menu, straight in the customers’ sight lines.