California chain restaurants must reveal calorie counts

The all-american hamburger with cheese and bacon.
The all-american hamburger with cheese and bacon. Bonnie Trafelet/Chicago Tribune/MCT

Dining at some restaurants will be a new experience starting today, when California becomes the first state to require that chain restaurants supply calorie counts for virtually everything they serve.

Consumers should be able to make informed decisions about their health and it will raise the consciousness of how much we eat," said John Rogers, Sacramento County environmental health division chief.

There will be no guessing – or denial – about that double Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl's Jr.: 960 calories. Side of Chili Cheese Fries to go with that? 990 calories. Maybe stick to the fried zucchini at 330 calories?

The new law requires restaurants with at least 20 stores in California – about 17,000 locations statewide – to provide a brochure on site listing calories, sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates for each menu item. Both sit-down and drive-through restaurants must comply.

Drive-through menus must notify customers that the information is available at the pickup window.

A second phase, effective January 2011, will require restaurants to list calorie counts directly on menus or menu boards.

Alcoholic drinks aren't included. Also, at restaurants that serve only buffets, such as Hometown Buffet, you'll be on your own.

Menu labeling was conceived as a way to help customers make choices, said Rogers. His department conducts restaurant inspections, which will include monitoring for proper menu labeling.

Consider this information from Rogers' department: An estimated one-third of all calories ingested by Americans are from restaurant food, and studies show that diners will shave off as much as 100 calories a meal when presented with calorie counts.

And consider this: Restaurants that fail to comply face a $50 to $500 fine, followed by other charges, such as unfair business practices.

Kim Simon and co-worker Julie Hereth emerged from a midtown Subway at noon Tuesday after splitting a tuna submarine: 530 calories for each.

"I looked to see what the cheapest one was," said Hereth, explaining her method for choosing lunch.

Carrying a soda and an empty bag of chips, Simon said she welcomed menu-labeling and would put it to good use. She said she switched to a more modest coffee drink after she found out the latte she had been drinking had 500 calories.

"I've saved lots of money," said Simon, 36.

Hereth said she always opts for what she believes are healthier choices, such as grilled chicken, but calorie counts can only help.

"It's definitely a good idea," said Hereth, 47.

The state's restaurants generally endorse menu labeling, said Lara Dunbar, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Restaurant Association.

Statewide standards are preferable to a hodgepodge of cumbersome local ordinances, she said, but there are still gray areas.

For example, Sacramento County's Rogers is unclear on whether See's Candy – definitely a chain – qualifies as a restaurant.

Dunbar said extending menu labeling to independent restaurants would cripple that segment, even though there are computer software and online subscription services to formulate nutrition information.

Fine-dining independents, such as Waterboy in Sacramento, face other constraints, she said.

"A chef considers the food more like art and he decides maybe to add a dollop of sour cream here or there. It's very difficult to standardize a process for a Waterboy," she said.

Menu labeling began in New York City in 2008 after legal challenges and other controversy, followed by King County in Washington, which started in January.

King County, which includes Seattle, has found that 85 percent to 90 percent of qualifying restaurants are complying, said Dennis Worsham, regional health officer for Seattle-King County.

Restaurants were concerned that menus would rival "War and Peace" with all the new information, but that didn't happen, Worsham said.

Whether menu labeling changes behavior is still debatable, but some restaurants have changed: One major coffee chain switched from whole milk to 2 percent milk to post a lower calorie count, Worsham said.

New York City and King County are collaborating on studies to determine to what extent behaviors change with menu-labeling.

Subway, with 2,200 restaurants in California and 22,500 nationwide, has been providing nutritional information for more than a decade, said Kevin Kane, a company spokesman.

Subway uses in-house dieticians and researchers for menu development but turns to independent analysis to get nutrition information, he said.

It is useful for some, inconsequential for others, he said.

"If someone is looking for that info, I'm glad it's up there for them, but for others, they still want the oil, cheese on both sides, it doesn't matter what you post up there," he said.

Strings Cafe, a Sacramento-based chain with 29 stores, has worked with suppliers to gather nutritional information on about 40 menu items, said Al DiCaprio, president of the company.

Once they got that information, the company paid about $2,000 for an online service that breaks down Army-sized nutrition information into serving portions, he said.

His fettuccine Alfredo weighs in at 950 calories, he said.

It's no cottage cheese and fruit, but DiCaprio said that diners generally eat healthy at home and treat themselves at restaurants – like to a plate of fettuccine Alfredo.

"I don't care how many calories it is, it's always a big seller," he said.

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