Walk into a restaurant these days and you might be able to check the calorie count of your enchilada, the salt content of your fries, the "heart healthy" status of your Asiago peppercorn steak and — in at least one pioneering place — the carbon footprint of your vegetable lasagna.
Welcome to the era of the menu as a spreadsheet.
More restaurants, either by mandate or by choice, are bombarding diners with calorie counts and other information. The disclosures on menus, menu boards and pamphlets are a victory for health advocates who believe informed consumers will make better food choices.
But the profusion of numbers makes one wonder: Is it possible to give diners too much information about their food?
"At some point, having too much information might actually hurt, because it may start to confuse," said Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Popkin is one of the many advocates who support current laws in New York City, Seattle and elsewhere that require chain restaurants to post calorie counts next to food listings. A similar nationwide requirement was approved recently as part of health care reform. The Food and Drug Administration has a year to write the rules.
Maybe the most unique drill-down-deep information is provided by Otarian, a vegetarian restaurant with two locations in Manhattan.
Each item on the menu board is listed alongside its carbon footprint, in kilograms, and the footprint of a similar meat dish. For instance, Otarian figures that 1.38 kilograms of carbon are released to make an order of tacos, compared with 2.43 kilograms for beef tacos. The menu board thus informs taco eaters they have saved the release of 1.05 kilograms of carbon into the atmosphere.
Otarian's founder writes about empowering customers to help the environment one meal at a time. It's not clear if all customers use their powers to figure out the carbon numbers.
People who study nutrition and psychology say the rule of thumb for making information useful is to keep it short and sweet — something a person looking at a fast-food menu can digest quickly.
Some chains have just simplified things on their own. "Nothing over 500 calories," says the menu at Energy Kitchen, a health-conscious chain in the New York City area that features burgers and wraps.
With a hodgepodge of local and still-to-be-decided national regulations determining how much and what information consumers will see, it's likely to take time for consumers to get used to seeing numbers other than dollars on the menu.
Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nonprofit that has tracked the issue for years, says there is no evidence restaurants are purposely providing too much information in an attempt to confuse consumers.
Maybe the biggest weakness of providing information for people ordering food is the "Who cares?" factor. People who order Burger King's Triple Whopper with Cheese (1,250 calories) or Taco Bell's Volcano Nachos (1,000 calories) probably understand that it is not health food.
"To me, it's something I ignore," Martin Momodu said as he walked from an Albany, N.Y., McDonald's, biting into a 360-calorie McChicken sandwich. "When I come here, I'm kind of in a rush."