A tale of two menus and calorie-posting

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A menu board at Dunkin' Donuts at 30th Street Station lists the calorie count of each item, as required by Philadelphia. (APRIL SAUL / Inquirer)

Among the breakfast choices this week at the Starbucks near Murray's Deli in Bala Cynwyd were a platter of come-hither apple fritters and tall green tea lattes.

You could find the same combo a few miles away in the city, at the Starbucks across from Whole Foods at 20th and Callowhill.

The only difference was that in the city the calories were posted on the menu board (as required by recent changes to the city health code); in the suburbs, they were not.

And what that told you (or didn't tell you) offers a window on why a low-profile piece of the health-reform bill President Obama signed last week has been greeted with, well, what passes for peace and love in these fractious times.

The fight over posting calories on menu boards above the cash register is, it appears, over. Even the National Restaurant Association is on board, saying it prefers a federal standard to a state patchwork.

Calorie-posting has become as accepted as those nutritional labels on cans of tomatoes that were required in the early 1990s, and which today nobody is lobbying to peel away.

Under the health-reform law's calorie provision, chain restaurants with more than 20 outlets will have to do what Philadelphia is already doing (along with California, Seattle, and others): Put the calorie content of sandwiches, drinks, and such up there for everyone to see. (Not under the placemat, in a folder over by the creamer, or on a Web site in outer cyberspace.)

Let us return, then, to the Starbucks in Bala.

A certain Edenic naturalness was evoked by the fritters ("apple") and the latte ("green tea").

What was far less evident - since no calories were posted - was that at 420 calories for the former, and 350 calories for a 16-ounce cup of the latter, together they equaled a Big Mac and small fries.

Maybe that's what you were in the market for. But maybe not.

And if not, you were better off at the Starbucks at 20th and Callowhill Streets where the calorie content of each menu item was unavoidable - the fritter-latte combo that weighed in at 770; the English muffin sandwich with sausage, egg and cheese, 500; the raspberry scone, close at 490.

Starbucks is hardly the major offender in the fat-bomb department. (For a truly pornographic count, check out Wendy's latest - the Baconator Double, two quarter-pound patties with cheese and bacon, topping out at 970 calories.)

But the $10 billion-a-year Starbucks empire has provided the most recent data on calorie-posting's impact, based on a year's experience under the posting law in New York.

A rigorous study by Stanford University researchers found a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction in 2008, not quite what you'd call a giant bite out of the obesity epidemic.

But in that first year of the New York law, they also found that while customers cut back slightly on high-calorie foods, they didn't cut back on coffee drinks, Starbucks' core business.

So revenue didn't decline. In fact, it increased 3 percent for units within roughly 100 yards of Dunkin' Donuts, suggesting some customers may have migrated to Starbucks for lower-cal choices.

The study concludes that the best may be yet to come. It's not illogical, the authors say, to assume that restaurants may slim down dishes to gain a competitive advantage.

And that consumers - regularly exposed to calorie counts - might register them and then pay more attention to them, and, finally, "the nutritional value of the foods they eat."

Talk about taking back America!

 


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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