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MENU SHOCK: YOU WILL BE SEEING MORE CALORIE INFO AT RESTAURANTS
Thanks to the new health-care bill, restaurant menus may get a little less appetizing.
A provision in the federal health-care reform bill signed into law last month requires chains with 20 or more restaurants to disclose calories on menus. If customers ask about other nutritional details, such as sodium levels, carbs and saturated fats, the restaurants must provide it in writing.
But the revealing information might not land on menus for at least a year and could take as long as three, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health-advocacy group that pushed for menu labeling. That will give the Food and Drug Administration time to finalize details of regulations.
Even though the rules may be years off, restaurants — including Orlando-based Darden, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster — are already taking steps to comply. Darden, along with Ruth's Chris which is based in Lake Mary, provide menus with nutritional information in cities and states that require it.
Once the numbers start showing up on menus, health advocates hope that will persuade the nation's diners to steer clear of the batter-dipped and sauce-drenched in favor of the grilled and steamed.
"There are going to have to be a number of ways to address obesity," said Margo Wootan, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's director of nutrition policy. "This is one of the important ones. This will provide an easy way for people to cut a significant number of calories from their diet."
Some are skeptical, pointing to studies from cities that have already passed such regulations showing relatively little change in consumer behavior. But industry experts predict restaurant companies will tweak dishes to make the numbers more palatable and add healthier items.
"They're sort of, for lack of a better word, exposed," Orlando nutritionist and dietitian Tara Gidus said. "Now they're going to be creating healthier options. … Hopefully, I think that's what's going to create some sweeping change within the restaurant industry."
Following local regulations, Darden prints out information for consumers on menus or supplements in 139 restaurants in two states ( California and Oregon), two cities ( New York and Philadelphia) and three counties in New York and Washington.
Last year, Darden began printing nutritional details online as well for its major brands. Darden did not provide details on how much the information on the Web site gets used. But a company spokesman said in an e-mail that traffic has been "consistent" and that since its launch, inquiries to the restaurants' guest relations departments for nutritional information has decreased 70 percent.
Ruth's Chris Steak House, an international, upscale chain that specializes in rich fare, does not provide nutritional information online. Its parent company, Ruth's Hospitality Group, did not respond to questions about how it will be affected by the menu-labeling regulations. Some Ruth's Chris restaurants are in jurisdictions that already require nutritional disclosure, including New York City, California and Oregon.
"I think people have been conscious to the fact this is coming for quite some time," said Rick Van Warner, president of Orlando-based retail and restaurant consulting firm The Parquet Group. "I think the smart companies have already gotten pretty far out in front of this."
Over the years, Darden has made changes to appeal to more health-conscious consumers. Its Red Lobster chain introduced wood-fire grilled dishes a little more than a year ago that are a prominent part of the restaurants' makeover. At Darden's Seasons 52 chain, which started in 2003, nothing on the menu has more than 475 calories.
Still, other Red Lobster and Olive Garden dishes have gotten slammed by health advocates for their high calorie counts and salt contents.
The numbers of calories in those dishes often take diners by surprise. Scott Nethero of Clermont, who's trying to lose 100 pounds, recently tried Olive Garden's four-cheese stuffed pansotti with chicken. He knew it was hardly a diet-friendly item, but his calorie estimate — between 700 and 800 — was way off. When he checked online later, he found it had more than 1,200.
"It was insane," he said. Had the numbers been on the menu, "it would have definitely changed the way I ordered."
For years, health advocates had run up against resistance from the restaurant industry on menu labeling.
But several cities and states around the country had already begun requiring calorie counts — and sometimes even more information — on menus.
Faced with a hodgepodge of conflicting local and state regulations, the restaurant industry formed an unlikely alliance with the Center for Science in the Public Interest to push for a national standard. The federal rules will override local and state ones.
"Darden was one of the leaders in helping to pass this final menu labeling policy," Wootan said. "It was quite nice to lobby side by side with Darden to pass the final menu labeling law."
The legislation has its critics. Some restaurant executives thought it was unfair that only chains with 20 restaurants or more are covered. Other criticisms are that the changes will be difficult and expensive to implement, and it will be tough for chains to ensure accuracy. Sometimes independent testing has conflicted with information restaurants have provided.
Wootan said much of the inaccuracy comes from inconsistent portion sizes. Restaurants must train employees to serve up the right amount of food, she said.
As for expense, "we believe that the costs could have and probably would have been higher for many companies having to deal with all different types of regulations and mandates," said Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association. "This is good for restaurant companies [and] it's good for consumers."
Sandra Pedicini can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5240.
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