Just how many calories in that eggplant parmigiana? In 2012, when restaurant labeling becomes the law of the land as part of healthcare reform legislation, diners will be in for some surprises. The law requires restaurants and retail food businesses with 20 or more locations to list calorie content for standard items on menus and menu boards. Drive-throughs are included, but movie theaters are exempt. Beyond calories, more detailed nutritional information — such as sodium, saturated fat or cholesterol content — must be available on request.
This is nothing new for some cities and counties around the nation where menu labeling laws for chain restaurants have been in place for years. States have added rules as well: California was the first, with a two-part roll-out. Nutrition information has been required on brochures since July 2009, and on menus or menu boards since Jan. 1.
Sticker shock greeted some patrons who discovered that their favorite dishes were packed with fat and calories. The chicken quesadilla grande at Applebee's? That's 1,270 calories and 37 grams of saturated fat. The Grand Slamwich with hash browns at Denny's? Try 1,520 calories and 44 grams of saturated fat.
Think you're saving calories by ordering a salad? The Original BBQ Chicken Salad at California Pizza Kitchen has 1,156 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat.
And patrons may be getting even more than they bargained for. A study released last month in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that among 42 fast-food and sit-down restaurants that were surveyed, 20% of the 269 foods tested had at least 100 more calories than what was stated in the nutritional information.
Are the laws affecting how consumers eat? A British Medical Journal study released last month found that menu labeling made a difference of 106 calories, on average, in what more than 8,000 people ordered at New York fast-food restaurants — but only among the 15% who said they saw or used the information.
And a 2010 study in the journal Health Affairs found that among 1,156 adults who ate at fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority New York City neighborhoods, half noticed calorie-labeling and almost 30% said the information had an effect on what they ordered. But when researchers looked at their receipts they saw no difference in the calories they consumed compared with people surveyed in New Jersey, where the law didn't apply.
Some restaurants have altered their menus to offer lower-calorie dishes, or at least highlight more healthful items, after labeling laws went into effect. One is Romano's Macaroni Grill, which has been dinged in the past for fattening dishes such as its fettuccine Alfredo, which weighed in at 1,130 calories and 53 grams of saturated fat, according to a report by the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Diners at the restaurant can now chow down on grilled chicken spiedini at 390 calories and 1.5 grams of saturated fat, or pan-seared snapper at 400 calories and 2.5 grams of saturated fat.
And the fettuccine Alfredo? That's been slimmed down to 770 calories and 27 grams of saturated fat.
Other chains, such as Applebee's and Au Bon Pain, are also offering new lower-calorie items, or at least highlighting more healthful fare. Starbucks' "Petites" line includes mini-bites of treats such as cake pops and mini-cupcakes for less than 200 calories.
In what may be the biggest concession to calorie consciousness, the Cheesecake Factory chain — home of gargantuan portions and calories to match — recently announced the addition of 50 "SkinnyLicious" menu items, all less than 590 calories.