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Menus list calories, but Californians may not be counting

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Walking into a chain restaurant in California these days, you'll see more than just prices on a menu – you'll see calorie counts. A Big Mac at McDonald's, 540 calories. A cranberry orange scone at Starbucks, 490 calories. Two eggs and two buttermilk pancakes at IHOP, 560 calories.

Calories and other nutrition information have been available in some form – in brochures, posters or online – at many restaurants for some time. But until Jan. 1 this year, none in California had been required to display calorie counts alongside menu offerings.

In 2008, following moves in New York City and Seattle, California became the first state in the nation to require menu labeling of calories. The law applies to restaurants and retail food outlets with 20 or more locations in the state. The Affordable Care Act will put similar measures in place nationwide by this spring.

Listing calories on menus is intended to help consumers make more informed and healthier food choices when they dine out. But recent studies show that may not be the case.

A yearlong study, published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found customers' orders were unaffected by menu labeling.

Researchers compared customer orders at several Taco Time locations in Seattle before and after calories were posted on menu boards. They also looked at Taco Time locations outside the regulated area. Their findings: The total number of sales and average calories per order were unaffected by menu labeling.

An earlier study on New York City fast food restaurants found many people said calories influenced their choices, but there was no significant difference in the average number of calories they ordered before and after menus began labeling calories.

Though menu labeling has been required for only a month, many restaurants in California report similar results.

"We've seen no discernable difference that we could attribute to menu labeling," said Patrick Lenow, a spokesman for DineEquity, owner of IHOP and Applebee's. "It's all about choice. People will make a choice regardless of what you share with them."

Lenow would not say which items customers are choosing most. But IHOP's "Simple & Fit Omelettes" and Applebee's "Unbelievably Great Tasting & Under 550 Calories" options make up only a tiny part of their menus.

Supporters of menu labeling say it's only a matter of time before consumers take note of posted calories and adjust their diets.

"When people become aware of calories because of this menu labeling law, it will have an impact," said Melissa Halas-Liang, a spokeswoman for the California Dietetic Association. Buying local, eating grass-fed beef or using automatic faucets to avoid germs on handles – at one point, these may have seemed novel, but they have gained traction, she added.

Perhaps more than any other restaurant, McDonald's may know how nutrition information affects customers' food choices. The fast food chain has provided such information for 35 years on posters, tray liners, online and now on its menu boards.

Since calories were posted on menu boards, "it really continues to be business as usual for us," said Neal Ruby, president of the McDonald's Operators' Association of California. "Some individuals have expressed that calorie counts will not affect their orders while others point out that the calorie counts will help them make better choices when dining out."

Because nutrition information was already available for many restaurants, gauging the impact of calories posted on menus can be difficult, said Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association. The association's members have generally reported no measurable difference, he said; at best, the impact is inconclusive.

"You could easily confuse correlation with causation when you look at menu labeling," Conway said. "People who really take advantage of this information and make thorough decisions about what they're eating are probably people who were already using this information" in brochures, posters or online.

Millions of people visit the Starbucks website every month, and the nutritional information page is one of the most visited, a representative for the coffee giant said. The company declined to say whether posting such information affected customers' orders.

Anecdotally, many people say the information has changed their food choices. And there are studies that support this.

In Seattle, parents were given a McDonald's menu to select meals for themselves and their child. Parents whose menus listed nutrition information chose an average of 102 calories fewer for their children than those whose menus did not.

Starbucks customers in New York City bought 6 percent fewer calories per order when calories were posted. But the reduction affected only food choices, not drinks, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found.

California Watch used the Public Insight Network, an opt-in program for people around the country to share their observations and experiences with journalists, to ask Californians about menu labeling.

Of 50 survey respondents, 40 said they have noticed calorie counts on menus and menu boards. As to whether the information influenced what they ordered, 37 said yes, and seven said no. Six said the calorie counts affected their orders sometimes.

Usually unable to resist Starbucks' marble pound cake, Maureen O'Boyle of Castro Valley was dismayed to learn that a slice weighed in at 350 calories. "Not only was I shocked, but now knew where my extra three pounds came from," she said. She skipped the cake.

Others can be swayed only so much.

"If I really want French fries, I'm going to have them," said Maia Willcox of Richmond. But, she conceded, "I rarely eat fast food, so the calories wouldn't be a big deal."

And for those looking to indulge, calorie counts can be a real party pooper. 

"I resent having the nutritional values shoved in my face and do not frequent restaurants that post this information directly on the menu," said Vicki Broughton of San Jose. "Every once in a while, I want something totally fat drenched, bad for me but oh so good, and the prominent posting of calories only makes me feel guilty."

Broughton longs for the days when calorie counts were available only upon request. Others expressed frustration at a calories-only view of nutrition that menu labeling promotes.

"Caloric value is an incredibly narrow way to analyze food, and is completely missing the point of making sure we eat well," said Sydney Nash of Ben Lomand. "This approach not only distracts us from what's really important about eating, it also sucks the joy right out of feeding yourself."

But many more people said they wished menus displayed more information.

From ingredients, carbohydrates, sugars and fat to preservatives, sodium and cholesterol, respondents said having more information would help them make better food choices.

Eventually, Halas-Liang, of the California Dietetic Association, said she'd like to see foods displayed in a nutrition spectrum showing, for instance, how many servings of produce an item has.

But, she said, "You've got to start somewhere … and a good starting place is calories."




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