Does Government Mandate of Calorie Counts Go Too Far?

Soon, in this fast-food nation, ignorance will be no excuse. By federal fiat, you'll have no choice but to know how fattening some of your favorite meals are. Heart burn may follow.

Eye-popping calorie counts, right in your face. Knowing that the Baconator Triple at Wendy's weighs in at 1,330 calories. In just one sandwich. That's two-thirds of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for an average adult woman. It's half of the recommended daily calories for a man.

Calorie Count

Not much better is Sonic's Supersonic Cheeseburger, with a hefty 898 calories. Taco Bell's chipotle steak taco salad boasts 900 big ones. The breast-leg biscuit meal at Popeyes checks in at 700 fat-filled calories.

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The new requirement is buried deep inside the health care reform that President Obama just signed into law. It's modeled on rules New York adopted two years ago. It requires all dining chains with 20 outlets or more to put calorie counts on their menus.

"This way you could have an educated idea of what you're going to eat," said Olga Diaz, a New York City diner, in a street interview. "You know because if you see something like the French fries, we shouldn't be eating the calories, you say 'OK, I'm not going to have the French fries, I'll have the salad or whatever.'"

Calorie Count
Calorie Count

But is the government going too far?

In Santa Clara, Calif., Ken Yeager, president of the county board of supervisors, is pushing a ban on toys in children's meals. He said the promise of a toy car or tiara could lure kids to fattening foods.

"Ten out of 12 meals that are associated with the promotional toys are the high-caloric, high-fat, high-sodium meals," Yeager said.

But a backlash is already under way. In Philadelphia, protesters rallied against a proposed tax on soda of two cents per ounce of sugary drink. The proposed tax was designed to fight obesity.

"Whether you drink soda or not, it's not going to affect your health and you're going to pay," said Frank Maimone, the owner of Pizza Rustica in Philadelphia.

Calories: 'They Want to Police Our Kitchen'

In Chicago, chef Didier Durand cooks classic French fare at his restaurant, Cyrano's Bistrot. "Nightline" dropped in on Durand preparing chicken rubbed with butter -- a lot of butter.

"I can tell you that's very yummy," Durand said.

But how many calories are there?

"I've got no idea," Durand said.

Durand heads an organization of independent restaurants to "keep police out of the kitchen." Members are fed up, Durand said, with encroaching government regulation.

"They want to police our kitchen," Durand said. "I want the police on the streets."

At any rate, the chef said he could never keep a true count of the calories in his food.

"In my kitchen, I put a pinch of that, a little of this, just never the same, so I think that will never be really accurate," Durand said. "Things change."

With only two establishments, Durand is exempt from the new rules. But he fears the Feds won't stop with the big chains. "We are chefs, you know, we don't want to do politics," he said. "We want just to cook for our customer who do not have time to read through a six-page menu."

But one big chain of casual cafes has already embraced the new law.

Panera Bread, with 1,300 stores nationwide, is the first chain of its kind to post the number of calories on each menu item, starting with all its cafes in the Chicago area.

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