Does Government Mandate of Calorie Counts Go Too Far?

Chain restaurants will have to post calorie counts under new health care law.

March 29, 2010, 12:23 PM

March 29, 2010 — -- 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.

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.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

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.'"

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.

"You'd be surprised the favorable reaction to that," said Pat Mellor, Chicago area manager of Panera. "And the customers that want to know love it, and the customers that really don't care, they don't even pay any attention to it. ... Believe it or not, what we're seeing is the customers that do care are getting smarter about their options and their picks, and they're really figuring out what works best for them."

The calorie counts can vary widely, starting with breakfast.

"We've got an Asiago bagel breakfast sandwich with bacon, eggs and our Vermont cheddar cheese on an Asiago bagel," Mellor said. "It's about 610 calories. Right below we've got a power breakfast sandwich... It comes on our whole-grain bread with ham, egg, and cheese, and it's only 360 calories."

At lunch-time, soups are the safest bet, most of them right around 100 calories per cup. The Italian combo sandwich? Look out below.

"It's our biggest offering," said Mellor. "It's got the most meat, the most items, that surprised me a little bit. ... I think it's around 900 calories." Actually it's 1,040, according to Panera's numbers.

Calories: 'It Helps Me to Make Better Choices'

Customers told ABC News that the calorie counts are helpful, but only to a point.

"It helps me to make better choices," said Heather Morris, a Panera's customer.

"The calorie count probably isn't going to change what I order," said Dennis LaLiberty, another customer. "But it might increase my guilt quotient."

Since it began listing calorie counts, Panera has noticed some modest changes, Mellor said. More people are choosing the "pick two" combination of a soup and half a sandwich or half a salad, he said. But there's been no sweeping rebellion against the more fattening choices.

Credit--or blame--for the new rules belongs in part to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

"As more and more consumers become aware of choices, they will start making the healthy choice," Harkin told ABC News. "Now does that mean everyone is going stop eating Big Macs? No, not at all. But I think even McDonalds will tell you this, more and more people are eating salads in McDonalds then they ever have before."

But will the new rules really change behavior? Since Starbucks started posting calories in New York City, a Stanford University study has found that consumers purchased products with 6 percent fewer calories per transaction. The average calories purchased fell from 247 to 232.

The national restaurant lobby has signed on to the new rules after first opposing them to avoid the hodgepodge of conflicting state and local regulations.

"Our customers who travel from Seattle to Florida or New York to California, we want them to get the same experience from cafe to cafe," said Mellor.

But Durand insisted the calorie counts were unnecessary. "[Customers] don't even care about that!" he said.

Coming soon to a chain outlet near you: perhaps more than you really care to know about that Burger King BK Quad Stacker. 930 calories. But who's counting?

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