Turkey or tuna sandwich? Tacos or fajitas? Latte or mocha? Calorie labeling—now on menus at chain restaurants with 20 or more locations—lets you cut hundreds of calories with a split-second decision. You’ll now also see calories at chain movie theaters, convenience stores, and supermarkets (which sell prepared foods and bakery items). Yesss!
It’s about time. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, has campaigned for menu labeling for over 15 years. These excerpts from menus show you what to look for (in yellow) and OUR TAKE on what it means.
OUR TAKE: How can Denny’s chicken sandwich have 960-1,250 calories? It depends on whether your side is fruit (110 calories), hash browns (170 calories), or fries (400 calories). When you see a range, it means that the calories depend on sides, sauces, toppings, beverages, etc.
OUR TAKE: Does BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse serve a 500-calorie sirloin steak dinner? Nope. That’s just the steak. With a baked potato and wedge salad, you’re looking at 1,410 calories.
OUR TAKE: For foods that come in pieces, slices, etc., companies get to decide what a “unit” is. For example, at Domino’s, it’s one slice of pizza, half an order of wings (4 wings), or a quarter of an order of bread bites (4 bites). So you may have to divide or multiply to find the calories in your serving. Where is that calculator on your phone?
OUR TAKE: How can Outback’s 6 oz. sirloin have 370/580 calories? Menus use a slash when you have two choices (370 calories with grilled shrimp or 580 with coconut shrimp). Other slashes could indicate, say, grilled vs. fried chicken, a half vs. a full serving of pasta, or blue cheese vs. ranch dressing.
OUR TAKE: At TGI Fridays, the Caesar salad’s 440 calories include its Caesar dressing. But the House Salad comes with a choice of dressing, so you have to tack on its calories (50 to 200). Got that?
OUR TAKE: Check the serving size of prepared foods at supermarket salad bars and hot bars. For many items, it’s 4 oz. That’s typically just ½ cup.
OUR TAKE: At California Pizza Kitchen, the menu lists pizzas along with pastas, salads, and other main dishes that typically serve one person. But beware: restaurants can list calories for a whole pizza or a slice (along with the number of slices per pizza).
Foods on display
OUR TAKE: Don’t miss the calories listed for fountain drinks, ice cream, baked goods, or other foods on display.
“Additional nutrition information available upon request.”
That sentence, now on menus, is a reminder that you can ask a restaurant (or supermarket, convenience store, movie theater, etc.) for more numbers, including saturated fat, sodium, and carbs.
Also on menus: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.” So what if you need 1,800? Or 2,300? Close enough. When you see a 1,000-calorie entrée, watch out.
Photos: CSPI: Jennifer Urban (salad bars), Jolene Mafnas (pizza), Lindsay Moyer (foods on display).