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.
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 email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.