Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Bills urge restaurants to post information on calorie, fat counts

Panera Chipotle Chicken sandwich  on Artisan French Bread:  1,070 calories, 55 g fat,  2,570 mg sodium

Panera Chipotle Chicken sandwich on Artisan French Bread: 1,070 calories, 55 g fat, 2,570 mg sodium

McDonald's makes sure that you know the dollar cost of a Quarter Pounder before you order. But the dietary cost isn't on the menu board.

Finding that requires sleuth work. You'll have to look on the back of the tray liner or study the package wrapper to learn that the sandwich (without cheese) packs 410 calories and 19 grams of fat.

But compared with other restaurants, the fast food icon is an open book when it comes to nutrition information. Curious about calorie counts at Applebee's? Nutrition information isn't available, its Web site says, "except where required by law."

Before long, such disclosure could be required everywhere. A growing chorus of health advocates who believe fattening restaurant fare has contributed to America's obesity epidemic say better nutrition information could help control the problem.

California, New York City and almost a dozen other places have passed laws requiring chain restaurants to post nutritional details. Similar legislation was introduced in Florida this year, but went nowhere. Now the battle is headed to Washington, where competing bills — one similar to New York's law, the other a more lenient version favored by the restaurant industry — would set national standards.

But to what end? Obesity is a complex problem, and there's no hard evidence that nutritional labels at restaurants would make people pick salads over french fries.

Fifteen years ago, nutrition labels detailing calories, fat, fiber and vitamin content were mandated for packaged foods. In the years since, Americans have grown heavier. Back then, one in six Floridians was obese. Last year, it was one in four.

Counting calories

Most Americans consume one-third of their calories from food prepared away from home, whether at restaurants or as takeout from grocers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says almost half of those calories come from fast food.

The health-conscious diner might think she's safe ordering salads or sandwiches rather than burgers. But experts say we underestimate the difficulty of counting calories.

Who would have thought, for example, that a roast beef sandwich at a typical deli can contain about 50 percent fewer calories than one made with tuna? Or that a healthy-sounding salad can have more than 1,000 calories and more than a day's allotment of fat?

Not Margo Wootan, and she has a Ph.D. in nutrition.

Studies and polls show "people can't guess which is the highest or lowest in calories — that the Tendercrisp Chicken sandwich has more calories than the Whopper at Burger King," she said. "It's not obvious, even to dieticians, how many calories are in a typical restaurant meal."

As director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Wootan wants that information on menus and menu boards, right next to the item name and price.

It's one thing to know that french fries are bad for you, she said. It's another to see that a medium order at Burger King clocks in at 480 calories and 23 grams of fat. The "apple fries"? Just 25 calories — they're sliced apples, no frying involved.

Battle over rules

Rep. Ed Homan of Tampa this spring filed a bill in the state Legislature called "Prevention of Obesity," calling for chain restaurants to post nutritional information prominently.

Opposed by the powerful restaurant lobby, his bill didn't get so much as one committee hearing.

"It's sort of like when everybody realized that smoking was bad for the public health, but where do you start?" asked Homan, a Republican and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of South Florida's medical school. "This is like the first step. This is taking the cigarettes out of the airplanes."

He'll try again next year. Meanwhile, a patchwork of similar laws are passing in communities from Portland, Ore., to Nashville.

Now Congress is considering two options that would ensure national consistency for restaurants and consumers.

The Menu Education and Labeling Act, or MEAL, similar to New York City's law, would require restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post next to each menu item the number of calories it contains. Carbohydrates, fat and sodium details would be posted there, too, or be available in writing when you order if there isn't room on the menu board.

The Labeling Education and Nutrition Act, or LEAN, backed by the restaurant industry, gives merchants more flexibility. Calorie counts could be listed on the menu board, on the same wall or on a sign in the order line. At sit-down restaurants, they could be inserted in the menu, listed in the back or in a supplemental menu.

Additional information would be available upon request.

Florida's legislators are lining up behind the LEAN Act, which has the support of Sen. Bill Nelson and 12 House members from Florida.

But many in the public health community oppose it. The LEAN Act, if passed, would override more stringent calorie posting rules like those in New York City, the first place to test the concept.

"The reason that we wanted to do it in the first place was to give consumers information, if they wanted to use it," said Cathy Nonas, director of physical activity and nutrition programs for the New York City Health Department. "And this information just cannot be seen if it's anywhere else than on a menu board and on a menu."

Can it work?

Before the calorie posting requirements went into effect, a study looked at 12,000 receipts of people leaving New York City restaurants at lunchtime. On average, they purchased about 800 calories worth of food. About one-third bought more than 1,000.

After the law passed, a follow-up study has indicated that significantly more chain restaurant patrons are seeing calorie information. And the percentage of customers who say they always consider calories when purchasing has risen from 29 to 36 percent, health officials say.

Of course, as with the nutritional fact boxes on packaged goods, the choice of whether to actually use the information is up to consumers.

Some restaurants see the writing on the wall. A few years ago, McDonald's made nutritional information widely available, if not on menu boards, after getting bad publicity from the movie Super Size Me.

After California passed a law requiring calorie postings, Yum Brands announced it would become the first national fast-food chain to voluntarily post the information prominently, on menu boards.

In the next two years, it says calorie counts are coming to menus of Yum-owned outlets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at or (813) 226-3322.

.Fast Facts

Sizing up Americans

Food prepared away from home:

33 percent of U.S. calories

44 percent of dollars spent
on food in the U.S.

Obesity on the rise:

17 percent of Floridians
were obese in 1995

25 percent of Floridians
were obese in 2008

16 percent of Americans
were obese in 1995

27 percent of Americans
were obese in 2008

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Proposed federal legislation on nutrition information in restaurants

MEAL Act: Similar to New York City law. Would require chain restaurants
to post calories and other nutrition data next to each menu item.

LEAN Act: Backed by restaurant industry. Would give merchants flexibility
to list calories on menu boards, in order lines or on menus at sit-down restaurants.

fast facts

Tips for healthy dining out

Calorie counts haven't come to Tampa Bay restaurants. What can we do now?

The health departments in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are working with restaurants to encourage people to take advantage of leaner options:

Take half home: Get a portion boxed to go.

Cook to order: Get grilled instead of fried, or no butter added.

Healthy substitutions: Order veggies, fruit or salad instead of fries.

Find participating restaurants: or

Bills urge restaurants to post information on calorie, fat counts 06/07/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 10:38am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Review: Arcade Fire open hearts, play with passion at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa


    Gloves off, hearts open and disco balls glittering, Arcade Fire scaled the stage for the first time ever in Tampa, pouncing and flailing and performing with all the passion that’s made them one of the world’s most celebrated rock bands this century.

    Arcade Fire performed at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa on Sept. 22, 2017.
  2. Lightning's Steven Stamkos looks close to top form in first game since November

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — The wait felt like forever for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, having gone 10 months without playing in a game.

    A scramble in front of the Lightning goal has Matthew Peca, far left, and Erik Cernak, middle, helping out goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the third period of a 3-1 win against the Predators. Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves, was “exceptional,” coach Jon Cooper says.
  3. Rays journal: Alex Cobb may have pitched last game in Rays uniform (w/video)

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — RHP Alex Cobb pitched well enough to lead the Rays to an 8-3 win over the Orioles on Friday.

    Wilson Ramos gives thanks after hitting a grand slam during the second inning, putting the Rays up 4-0.
  4. Steven Souza Jr. vindicating big trade for Rays

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — There was a time when the three-team, 11-player transaction the Rays orchestrated to get Steven Souza Jr. from the Nationals looked liked a bad deal.

    The Rays’ Steven Souza Jr. has 30 home runs this season while improving his defense and baserunning but wants to improve on his .236 batting average.
  5. Fennelly: Lightning's Manon Rheaume made history 25 years ago Saturday

    Lightning Strikes

    The name is part of Lightning history, hockey history, sports history.

    Lightning goalie Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game 25 years ago today.