In New York City, chain restaurants are now officially required to post calorie counts for the items on their menu boards. I wrote before about the reaction to this when it went into effect, and now violators are being cited, albeit with no real penalties until the summer.
It will be interesting to see if the news that Jamba Juice's 16-ounce Mango Peach Topper smoothie with granola contains 500 calories affects the number of people ordering it for breakfast. In the meantime, nutrition experts (and the restaurant industry, which is still fighting the NYC regulations) have other ideas about how restaurants could encourage diners to make more healthful food choices. Here are a few of them:
1. Add more low-calorie items. If there are just one or two low-cal items and everything else on the menu is far higher in calories, people won't go for the lighter options, says Collin Payne, acting director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, which researches how unconscious cues affect our eating habits. A token offering of applesauce as a side dish in a sea of french fries and onion rings is going to look "starkly different," he says, so different that people are likely to say, "That's odd," and ignore it.
2. Make it easier to order smaller portions. Fast-food chains offer various sizes, but it's a lot harder to watch portion sizes at casual dining restaurants like Outback Steakhouse or Red Lobster. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, suggests a price-break strategy; even 30 percent less money for a half portion might induce some people to downsize. T.G.I. Friday's is currently advertising its expanded "Right Portion, Right Price" menu to emphasize the low prices on its smaller entrees and desserts, not a bad strategy in current economic environment.
3. Make nutritious kids' meals the default option. If you ordered a Happy Meal, you'd automatically get apple slices and low-fat milk to accompany the burger. If parents wanted to order the fries and Sprite instead, they'd have to ask, says Nestle.
4. Emphasize lower-calorie beverages. Recommendations from a 2006 report by the nonprofit Keystone Center on away-from-home foods and preventing weight gain include the suggestion that food service outlets offer more low- or zero-calorie drinks, like seltzer and unsweetened iced tea, on their menus. Smaller drink portions would help, too.
5. Pay as much attention to the marketing of more healthful options as to the standard fare. Research at Cornell suggests that words matter: Using descriptive labels like "Black Forest chocolate cake" instead of "chocolate cake" makes diners buy more and rate the food more favorably. So chains could use that to the advantage of more wholesome options. That's what McDonald's is most likely doing with its Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait, though the Reduced Fat Ice Cream Cone could use a little wordsmithing to make it sound as tempting as the Chocolate Triple Thick Shake.
6. Use HealthyDiningFinder.com to seek out menu options before you leave the house. Guess who suggested this? The restaurant industry would prefer that chain outlets aren't compelled to post the calorie count right there on the menu board, saying it violates the First Amendment. That info is available elsewhere, they say, including on the HealthyDining website. True, but the site isn't comprehensive, and the info can be hard to find on the individual companies' sites; here's one review of restaurant nutritional websites by the New York Times.
If you want to track the NYC legal battle and the broader issue of calorie labels, Nestle's blog What to Eat is following it. And readers, would any of these propositions get you to pick the yogurt parfait over the shake the next time you're dining out?