Want Fries With That?

The other day a friend and I were in the local Panera Bread and ordered blueberry muffins to go with our coffees…that is, until I looked in the display case and saw the mandatory nutrition labels. A 4.5 gram serving totaled 390 calories – nearly 36 percent from fat! Not an especially healthy way to begin the day.

As a New Yorker, I’m already used to seeing nutrition and calorie information at chain restaurants and on menus. Several other states, including California, and several cities, also have laws on the books that mandate posting information alongside foods in specific restaurants.

The new health reform law goes one step further  – removing a long-standing exemption and requiring that “chain” restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” with twenty or more locations

“shall disclose in a clear and conspicuous manner— in a nutrient content disclosure statement adjacent to the name of the standard menu item, so as to be clearly associated with the standard menu item, on the menu listing the item for sale, the number of calories contained in the standard menu item, as usually prepared and offered for sale” (Article IV, section 4205)

Vending machine operators with 20 or more machines will also fall under this requirement, and will have to post information alongside their offerings.

Many restaurant owners argue that nutrition data is already available on corporate websites or on the backs of paper tray liners. Within the year, however, it must be posted right on the menu board – so you will know upfront that the Double Quarter Pounder with cheese you’re about to chomp will set you back 740 calories – more than half of that from fat – and a whopping 1380 mg of sodium. Head to Starbucks for a Grande Vanilla Frappucino, and you can’t escape notice of sipping 310 calories. Add whipped cream and it jumps to 430. Starbucks noted it does offer a list of drinks under 200 calories and many foods under 350 calories.

If a restaurant provides a salad bar, buffet, or other “self-service” arrangement, labeling information must be placed next to each item, based on “reasonable” means of determining nutrition counts – cookbooks or lab testing for example. Specials, temporary offerings, or items in market testing are exempt.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was given 120 days from the date the reform was signed to develop guidelines; the law must be enacted before March 23, 2011. This provision preempts the various state laws currently on the books that don’t follow the same guidelines, but some restaurants and vending machines will still be subject to state and local requirements.

Center for Science in the Public Interest was instrumental in getting this proviso into the final bill. They and other supporters say that it will help in the fight against obesity by giving consumers a better sense of just how much they are eating. Studies that have examined New York City’s law (enacted in 2008) have found mixed to generally positive results regarding changes in eating habits.

Knowing the nutrition information of common foods is a good thing. It allows people to make more informed decisions and hopefully get a handle on just how much they ingest daily. Most people vastly underestimate calories counts, especially in restaurants, according to CSPI. Nutrition labeling is important not only for fighting obesity, but for helping to manage heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic ailments.

So next time I’m in Panera, I just might splurge on that blueberry muffin, but at least now I know what I’m in for.

What do you think about mandating nutrition labeling in restaurants? Good idea, or too much interference by government?

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4 thoughts on “Want Fries With That?

  1. Timely post…I recently opted not to order fries as a snack when I realized it would take me about 45 minutes to burn off the 300 or so calories!

  2. Sugar!!!!! Yikes. This is so true. I often frequent Dunkin Donuts and if I sat and added up the calories, or if it was prominently displayed, I’d be sure and not order that over sized muffin.

    Great post.

  3. Excellent post. I’m definitely one who’s underestimated calorie counts and been label-shocked at restaurants. More information is never a bad thing.

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