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Posting calories on menus

I believe we'll see laws requiring calories be posted on menus. Do you think this will effect what and how often people will eat out?

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  1. Just so people know heading into this discussion: caloric information for individual ingredients are actually rounded averages that have a fairly wide tolerance for error, an error that scales significantly over large quantities. I write this as someone whose has used my own copy of Bowe & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, the bible of US nutritional data, for many decades (it's what feeds so many databases) for a food diary and to create portion-based nutritional info for recipes I craft (it's not rocket science in that regard - just a spreadsheet with open data fields and embedded formulas), and has learned how the nutritional info on packages of even something as simple as dried beans can be off by as much as 50%.

    When you consider that fact, and also consider that only very integrated food production enterprises - those that have standardized recipes, standardized procurement, and standards to reduce waste by monitoring the use of ingredients and the dishing out of uniform portions in the most efficient way - are even in a position to produce caloric values on menus that bear a vaguely approximate to a reality still fraught with high tolerance for error. In other words, chains. (This is why chains can be somewhat friendlier terrain for calorie counters than non-chains; but only to a certain degree.)

    I would looooooooove to see how a calorie count on a menu would really capture all that oil that saturates Chinese and Indian buffet dishes, keeping them glistening, while people wonder why they want to eat more and more of it (hint, folks: if it really appeals to you, it probably has more fat than you'd want to know). But I am not holding my breath waiting for that happy day. In the meantime, I just know to avoid most buffet food and order certain items a la carte that are easier to deconstruct by eye for caloric ballpark.

    By the way, eating out is one place where simply prepared cuts of flesh are the calorie-counters best friend - it's a helluva lot easier to estimate calories of a piece of steak (adding 100-200 calories for melted butter or oil if it's glistening or juicy uncut, as it usually is) than for, say some vegetable-grain concoction that is hiding an enormous amount of oil.

    1. I like it when the chain restaurants have calorie counts on menus (Fridays, Cheesecake Factory, etc.) Sometimes the photos/descriptions of the foods being offered sound or look better than they are. Seeing a calorie count helps me step back and say, "That crap has over 1000 calories. Look for something else."

      If I'm going to a special occasion restaurant, I don't want to know! Usually when I'm at a place that's special and upscale, it's not a common occurance, so having some extra calories feels okay.

      1. I was recently in Grand Central Station in NYC, where calories are required to be posted in chains. I got a coffee in Starbucks, but chose to get my baked treat ( can't remember what I got ) at a bakery across the way where calories did not need to be posted. I know how many calories that piece of cake has, but I did not need to see it posted as large as day!!! Of course, what I got was a thousand times better than the Starbucks stuff.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Leslie

          We were in NYC this past 9/11. The weather was miserable and we sought shelter in an Outback Steak House. I had never been to one but it was lunch time and wet out, so we stayed. The calories were indeed posted on the menu. Despite all the apparent healthy choices and various apps, the lowest calorie meal was the strip steak.

        2. Wouldn't laws requiring calories to be posted on menus put an end to daily specials (or frequently updated menus, even)? It takes time to get the nutritional information processed in a lab.

          1 Reply
          1. re: bluemoon4515

            There are myriad software apps that you enter recipes into and they give you the analysis, some with extremely detailed USDA nutrient data as well.

          2. Here in New York City, as other posters have mentioned, chain restaurants are required to post calorie counts. How accurate they are, I do not know. Theoretically they should be, since the menus are so standardized. I rarely eat at chain restaurants but I like having that information when I do.

            1. I like having that information available right there, as I might be out dining on impulse or lacking access to a computer to plan out my meal. It's up to you to do something with the information or not, but it's good to have as much information as we can. It's great to have this info on canned and prepared foods, so what's the difference? It's merely informing the customer; it doesn't force your hand.

              9 Replies
              1. re: Au Pomme

                It's up to you to do something with the information or not, but it's good to have as much information as we can.

                Exactly. People often argue against this as "telling us what to eat" but as you said, it's simply information you can use in whatever way you want, or choose to ignore.

                And yes, there are lots of programs out there that can generate a calorie count for a recipe.

                1. re: Au Pomme

                  I don't know if you were replying to me, but I wasn't objecting to the info, just telling bluemoon4515 that daily specials calculations didn't need lab evaluation, just recipe software.

                  1. re: mcf

                    Except that in a non-chain environment they are often experiments using amounts of ingredients that vary a lot batch to batch, and not as likely to be standardized in portion size.

                    1. re: Karl S

                      Sure, that's an issue; but if they wanted to, they could enter the recipe each time they serve it in a second. Or just make the changes each time to the original. My only point is that it needn't be sent to a laboratory for testing. :-)

                      1. re: mcf

                        And who's going to be sitting in front of a computer typing things during service to constantly change this information?

                        1. re: Blueicus

                          I don't know, and I don't care! I was simply pointing out that no one needed to pack up a meal and ship it to an independent testing lab.

                        2. re: mcf

                          My counter point is that it's just not feasible for non-chains to do this for genuine specials (as opposed to irregularly offered standard items that are called specials).

                          1. re: Karl S

                            You may be right about that. I don't know how commonplace the use of recipe software is in independent restaurants or how interested independent chefs are in knowing or providing the data. Frankly, I think it's MY job to figure out what to eat and not to eat.

                            1. re: Karl S

                              I read an article in the past few weeks (I think it was in the NY Times, but I can't remember now) that said that even in chains, the calorie count was often as much as 40% too low.

                              We also had an article in my local newspaper about how one independent restaurant does have software installed in the restaurant that allows people to check out the calorie counts. I think he just created the software himself, so I'm not sure how accessible that would be to the typical, less tech savvy restaurant owner.

                    2. bleh what a horrible idea. Too much of a nanny state is not a good thing.

                      9 Replies
                      1. re: smartie

                        Absolutely. Next, they'll prohibit smoking in restaurants.

                        1. re: smartie

                          I'm not sure how providing information about calories can be considered "nanny state" behavior. It doesn't keep you from ordering the food if you want it, and it's not so different from listing the ingredients.

                          1. re: small h

                            I agree. I don't see how empowering people to make informed choices is being a "nanny state."

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              it's a nanny state when the government make it law for restaurants to do this

                              1. re: smartie

                                That's not what "nanny state" means, but whatever. Is it "nanny state" to make companies put ingredients on their packages? What's the difference?

                                1. re: smartie

                                  It's a nanny state when the government makes laws to protect individuals without giving them the ability to make a decision themselves. Putting calorie information on a menu is no different than putting the same information on prepackaged food. It allows the consumer to make the decision herself whether she wants to eat a certain item. A nanny state is one that strips the consumer of the ability to decide how to run his/her life.

                                  1. re: queencru

                                    if the government make a restaurant owner put the calorific value of their foods on their menus then I think that is interfering with their ability to run his or her own life. How can a restaurant even do this when there may be a splash more cream or butter in a dish tonight. Are we going to have customers sue a restaurant because the count is wrong?

                                    sorry but I think government interference stinks in this example. You mean to tell me that it is not obvious that a chocolate cake has more calories than a fruit salad and that plain grilled chicken and steamed vegetables is less fattening that one done in a cream sauce with fried potatoes? A walk around my yard is less dangerous than horseback riding in the Rockies without a hard hat but I don't need to be told that.

                                    1. re: smartie

                                      As a reported upthread, there have already been issues with the calorie count being too low in many situations where it's already reported. I don't think anyone expects it to be exact, but at least it can give you an idea of how big a portion size is. If you're new to a restaurant, you really don't know what to expect in terms of portions. Some places like Cheesecake Factory give gigantic portions while others do tend to give more modest portions. Thus you can be ordering the same dish at two places but get a wildly different calorie count just because there was no indication of the size on the menu.

                                      1. re: smartie

                                        It may be government regulation, but it's not nanny state, as smartie explained so well. Government has myriad regulations that empower consumers to make informed choices and require businesses to do business more openly. Not a bad thing in my mind. No one said anything about consumers being able to sue if the calorie counts are wrong, and unless the counts were significantly off enough to constitute fraud (more than a splash more cream), there wouldn't be any damages.

                                        There are a lot of hidden calories in restaurant foods -- while the example you gave is extreme, in many cases it's not obvious where the calories are. Furthermore, restaurant portion sizes are so out of control that most people don't even know what a "normal" portion is supposed to be, and just how far above normal restaurant portions are.

                            2. I think it would be better to just have the information available, like some of the fast food restaurants have a pamphlet available for customers to view. When I go out to eat(which is not often), I would rather not know how many calories everything has. Although, maybe this will force restaurants to not serve huge, ridiculous portions so they can report a lower calorie count.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Fromageball

                                Yeah. me too. It would kind of ruin going out for me. I'm in Montana, land of the free and home of the hands off, so this probably won't happen for a long time. But I watch what I eat when eating at home, and sort of give myself permission to eat whatever on the rare occasions I eat out. Nothing is going to ruin duck for me like knowing how many calories there are. But que sera, sera.

                              2. I would love to see the calories posted on menus. Even though detractors claim that every knows that salads will have fewer calories than meat entrees, if you look in calorie guides like the Eat This - Not That books, you find that there are many restaurants serving salads in the 1,500 c. range, with steaks or burgers at half that.

                                1. I don't like the idea personally. The information should be accessible upon request, but not provided so diners see it pretty much involuntarily. Anyone here struggled with an eating disorder, or had to "eat out" with someone dealing with one? Stuff like this would only exacerbate the problem. And I can imagine people not feeling good about themselves, for whatever reason, feeling pressure on themselves, whether acted upon or not, to order the least calorific item on the menu. Like feeling like you should order the least expensive, only more furtive and emotionally damaging.