Fries with that? Health reform puts calories on the menuby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — If you eat out, you might start noticing some new information appearing on menus over the next year -- calorie counts.
The federal health care reform law will require chain restaurants to begin posting calories and other nutrition information on their menus in hopes consumers will choose lower-calorie alternatives.
The law will require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to post the number of calories beside each food item.
In addition, restaurants will have to make other nutrition information available on request such as saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
Restaurants are waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to release final regulations, which could come anytime between now and March 23.
Davannis Pizza and Hot Hoagies, which operates 21 restaurants in the Twin Cities is one of those local chains waiting for specifics.
Vice President Ken Schelper said he's curious how the FDA will instruct him how to add calorie counts to his menu boards and take-out menus.
"One where you essentially have a build-it-yourself menu, because we have three different kinds of pizza crust, four different types of sauce options, 16 or more different toppings that can be put on it," he said.
Schelper says he's not against disclosing food nutrition because Davannis already posts that information on its website.
But he balks at the cost of having to change his restaurants' menu boards and reprint take-out menus and catering brochures. He says the changes will likely cost him between $150,000 and $180,000 per year and comes at a time when the rough economy has hurt business.
"We're doing better than most restaurants. Most restaurants have been struggling the last couple of years even to break even so the timing on this thing is ... it's expensive," he said. "I don't think it's going to serve the purpose that the people that are pushing for this had in mind."
The reason behind posting calorie counts is to provide a little sticker shock for consumers.
The theory is that when Americans see how many calories their favorite cheeseburger contains, they'll opt for something with fewer calories.
They'll either lose weight or not gain as much and save the nation money in obesity-related health care costs.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate those costs -- from increased coronary heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer to name a few -- added up to nearly $150 billion in 2008.
New York City has had a similar calorie posting law since 2008. The latest study showed that after restaurants posted the calorie counts, about 15 percent of customers chose a lower calorie item.
New York City Health Department's Dir. of Physical Activity and Nutrition Programs, Cathy Nonas says 15 percent is positive.
"In New York City, that's a quarter of a million people a day. These chain restaurants have a significant number of consumers," she said. "And when we looked at that data ... those people who said that the calories mattered, really did purchase about 106 less calories at lunch after the calorie posting than before."
The National Restaurant Association supports the posting law because it will create a consistent uniform format throughout the U.S. instead of a patchwork of different laws.
Even though some chains are grumbling about the cost of the federal requirement, others are choosing to post calorie counts voluntarily.
D. Brian's Deli and Catering has 10 locations in the Twin Cities, too few in number to be required to post under the federal health care law. But founder and owner Doug Sams says he began posting calorie counts last June as a way to set his delis apart from competitors.
When he discovered that one of his breakfast items topped 900 calories, Sams took it off the menu. He predicts other owners will follow suit.
"It's going to require restaurant owners to revamp their ingredients, recipes and menus," he said. "Because those thousand-calorie meals are going to have to go away because people aren't going to order them anymore."
Sams predicts that the new nutrition labeling will set off a competition between restaurants to offer the most flavorable food with the least amount of fat and calories.