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Coming soon to a restaurant near you: Calorie counts

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A soft burrito meal at Amigos has about 1,100 calories. (Grant Gerlock/NET News)
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Grant Gerlock is Harvest Public Media's reporter based at NET News in Lincoln, Neb.

The most popular menu choice at Amigos restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., is the soft taco. The combo meal with a soft taco, a 20-ounce Pepsi and mexi-fries, which are like tater tots, adds up to 1,100 calories.

While you can find that calorie count on the Amigos web site, it’s not on the menu — yet.

But starting next year, chain restaurants like Amigos with more than 20 locations will have to list the number of calories in their food right on the menu. Federal regulators are hoping the information will help people make healthier choices. For restaurant owners, though, the new requirements present a logistical challenge that could affect their business.

The 29-location Amigos chain serves tacos, burritos, burgers and fries. Co-owner Jan Moore said calorie counts have been calculated for most items on the menu with help from a lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but what customers actually order can be more complicated than what appears on the menu.

"It would make a difference if it's French fries or mexi-fries in our restaurant," Moore said. "Then also it makes a difference if it's a diet drink or a regular drink. Then we have people who add sour cream, hold sour cream."

These are the kinds of things the Food and Drug Administration is working to clear up as it finalizes the new rules.

Dan Roehl, senior director of government relations for the National Restaurant Association, said restaurants have been asking how to make their unique menus fit with nationwide regulations.

"You have to deal with how you label pizzas that have 34 million different combinations," Roehl said. "It really does become a fairly complex undertaking, especially if the goal is to try and provide information to customers in a way that it would be usable to them."

Calorie-coated menus

    The Food and Drug Administration is finalizing a requirement that U.S. restaurant chains with 20 or more units to include calorie counts with their menu offerings. Similar rules already exist in places like California, Massachusetts, and New York, but the FDA rule, expected to take effect in 2012, will provide a nationwide standard. Here’s what’s certain:
  • Menus must display calorie numbers for most foods.
  • Menus must include a statement that adults are recommended to eat a diet of 2000 calories per day.
  • Customized orders do not have to have a place on the menu (i.e. extra pickles, hold the mayo).
 

Restaurant operators are also wondering who will ensure restaurants are making changes and being honest with their calorie numbers. According to Roehl, the FDA may take up that responsibility with a system of spot-checking locations. It is also possible the job might go to local public health departments as part of routine health inspections.

Questions also remain about exactly how calories must be presented on the menus. In initial proposals, the FDA simply states said the calorie numbers need to be clear and conspicuous. For smaller chains like Amigos, Moore said, it can be a challenge to keep up with last-minute details.

"If you have 500 restaurants, it's going to cost you a lot less per restaurant to get the information you need," Moore said. "And you need to compete in every way with restaurants of other sizes, so it's just something we need to do."

Staggering rates of obesity across the country are part of the reason for pushing calorie labels. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports almost 34 percent of all adults in the U.S. are obese. To keep from gaining weight, most people need to stick to 2,000 calories per day, but diners often have trouble keeping to that suggestion, according to Christina Roberto of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

"People have a really hard time estimating the calories in restaurant food," Roberto said. "We know when people eat out they tend to eat foods that are higher in calories. The foods tend to be of poor nutritional quality. They're served in really large portions, and we know that that promotes overeating."

But after it's posted on the menu, big changes in eating habit are not necessarily likely to follow. Some studies demonstrate that menu labels can have a big impact, while others only show a slight difference.

"But when you're thinking about a public health problem, even if you have part of the population doing that it, (that) can really have a meaningful impact," Roberto said.

And after calories appear on the menu, consumers may not be the only ones expected to re-examine their habits. Restaurants might also decide to cut back.

"Some of these chain restaurants, in particular, have menu items that are your whole day's worth of calories — 2,000 calories for an appetizer or side dish," Roberto said. "We're already seeing Cheesecake Factory announcing a Skinnylicious menu, Olive Garden saying they're going to bring the calorie counts down in their foods."

Amigos started its Fiesta Fit menu last year. Moore said she senses a more lasting focus on healthier eating may be setting in with her customers.

"The public responded, and they sold well enough that we kept them on our menu," Moore said. "So more than ever the public is responding and concerned. How much it affects their buying patterns is hard to say."

With new menus expected to be in place by mid-2012, calorie counts will soon be in front of consumers. But it will still be their choice whether to add them up.