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On the Menu: More Healthful Food?

Jason's Deli co-owner Rusty Coco has improved the numbers on his kids' menus. (Jason's Deli)

Over the past decade, obesity levels have spiked. People are eating out more often. So it only makes sense that public health advocates are taking aim at restaurant menus.

Last week, Congress came to a historic agreement with the restaurant industry to mandate listing calories on menu boards at chain restaurants. Today, Jason's Deli, whose co-owner Rusty Coco is a champion of "real" food, announced a revamped kids' menu that includes more organic ingredients and less sodium, saturated fat and calories.

The congressional agreement, which will be rolled into the anticipated health-care reform bill, calls for all chain restaurants with more than 20 outlets to post the number of calories on menu boards or menus. Additional nutrition information such as calories from fat, amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium must be immediately available in written form upon request, not posted somewhere in the store or on a Web site. The agreement also calls for calorie information to be posted on vending machines owned by companies with more than 20 outlets.

Cities such as New York have already implemented menu-labeling regulations. But the agreement ends a long political struggle at the federal level between public health advocates and the restaurant industry.

Advocates argued that menu labeling is crucial because it’s not always clear what a healthful choice is: In 2007, the California Center for Public Advocacy released a poll that revealed an overwhelming number of Californians were unable to identify which restaurant menu items were most healthful. For example, only 10 percent of respondents knew that, at 1,160 calories, a large McDonald’s chocolate shake was a higher-calorie option than two Big Macs, which come in at 540 calories each.

The restaurant industry had worried that putting calories on menu boards would be costly and misleading, especially in restaurants where items are customized.

A Congressional mandate is sure to push many chain restaurants to reduce calories as well as fat and sodium. Which is why Jason's Deli wants to stay ahead of the curve. Co-owner Coco is a confessed "health nut" who began to make over the deli's menu more than a decade ago when, he says, he woke up and realized he couldn't eat anything at his own restaurants. The chain, with more than 200 outlets including ones in College Park, Falls Church and Fairfax, already has rid its menu of all high-fructose corn syrup. Its new kids' menu, which offers sandwiches, wraps and pasta with meatballs, now has 21 percent less sodium, 20 percent less saturated fat and 10 percent fewer calories.

"Lowering calories is only one element," said co-owner Coco. "Kids and parents need to know more about the food they eat and how to eat healthier."

I have friends and family in New York who tell me that readily available calorie information has changed the way they eat. (When a friend found out that a Starbucks muffin had more than 400 calories, she didn't buy it.) But what do you think? Is more information better? Or are restaurateurs and Congress trying to legislate the way we eat?
-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  June 16, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, nutrition  
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I am so excited about this change. I usually go to chain restaurants websites in advance to determine what I can order but the information there is often imperfect. They will only give calorie information for their lighter items and in the case of many, not have anything posted at all. I don't think being fully armed with information will change the frequency with which I eat out; I am certain it will affect my choices. I hope restaurants change their menus as well to accommodate diners interested in healthier selections. In my mind this is a win-win situation for both restaurant and diner.

Posted by: jenrellis | June 16, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Sometimes, it's really hard to tell what the good options are. (A milkshake seems obvious, but...) Some salads have more fat and calories than the burger served at the same restaurant and just you don't realize. The cheese crumbles, the dressing, etc. all add up, but you're still thinking "salad = healthy." People will still splurge (in calories and $) but at least they'll know how much. Knowledge is a good thing.

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | June 18, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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