Ignorance can be bliss, especially when it comes to knowing the calorie count of your favorite fattening foods.
But in New York City, not knowing may not be an option. Thanks to a law that took effect this month, some restaurants must start posting on menus the calorie content of each item they serve, making the calorie count as visible as the cost of the food.
New York health officials are hoping that the sight of a 540-calorie Big Mac or 500-calorie Mocha Frappuccino will inspire restaurant patrons to make healthier food choices. While some chain restaurants currently make their nutritional information available online or through in-store brochures, authorities want that information to be easier to see -- and theoretically harder to ignore.
"People … are not aware of how many calories are in the foods and drinks they get served," Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, said in a Health Department press release. "Providing calorie information before they buy foods should help consumers."
Restaurants Argue First Amendment Rights
Relatively few restaurants have complied with the law so far. Chains like McDonald's and Wendy's have voiced their opposition, and this week the New York State Restaurant Association took the city's Health and Mental Hygiene Department to court, arguing in a federal lawsuit that the law violates restaurants' First Amendment rights. The industry also complains the rule would clutter menus and confuse consumers.
New York's calorie labeling law would effect roughly 10 percent of the city's restaurants -- only those that currently make their calorie count available to the public in their stores or online. Most high-end eateries or mom-and-pop shops would be spared.
"Essentially, New York City is punishing businesses who are doing the right thing," argued Rick Sampson, CEO of the Restaurant Association.
"This is part of a long-term strategy by city government to tell New Yorker's what they can and cannot eat."
The industry also complains that the law discourages the 90 percent of restaurants who do not make calorie counts available from doing so in the future. A spokesman for Chipotle, the Mexican restaurant chain, told ABC News that company would not provide nutritional information specifically so that it would not be subject to the menu rule.
Tim Zagat, founder of Zagat's restaurant guides, said that for many eateries the rule is a hard one to follow.
"High end restaurants are changing their menus all the time… [calorie counts] are impractical to calculate," Zagat told ABC News.
Zagat does concede, however, that there are financial interest at stake -- interests that may conflict with the public interest.
"[Posting calories] is bad for business… though it's good for people to know what's in their food."
The Fight Against Obesity
Advocates of the new calorie law see it as a critical tool in America's struggle with obesity. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and the Center for Science in the Public Interest are among those who've expressed support for the law in an amicus brief filed in U.S. District Court.
"The restaurant industry isn't concerned about defending the First Amendment … it just wants to keep its customers in the dark," Margaret Wootan, the center's director of nutrition policy, said in a press statement.
Reactions to the law have been mixed among New Yorkers.
"If you wanna eat it you're gonna eat it. If you're gonna eat it you should have that information -- full disclosure," said New York resident Vartivar Sagherian.
But others who oppose the law believe that seeing the calorie count takes fun out of the dining experience. Those who treat themselves to junk food, they argue, know its nutritional value and choose to ignore it.
The calorie labeling law has been in effect since July 1, though the Health Department said it would not enforce the rule until October. The Restaurant Association hopes that during that grace period New York's Southern District Court will rule in their favor, striking down the law.
Outside New York more than a dozen states and cities are considering similar laws to put calories on the menu -- whether or not that's information consumers want to swallow.