Chain Restaurants Charged With Promoting “X-treme Eating”

With Appetizers, Entrées, and Desserts Weighing in at 2,000 Calories Apiece, the Time is Ripe for Menu Labeling, Says CSPI


WASHINGTON—A 2,000-calorie appetizer. A 2,000-calorie main course. Another 1,700 calories for dessert. Those aren’t typos. It’s more like par for the course at Ruby Tuesday, On the Border, the Cheesecake Factory, and countless other top table-service chain restaurants. But since those chains make almost zero nutrition information available on menus, their customers don’t have a clue that they might be getting a whole day’s worth of calories in a single dish, or several days’ worth in the whole meal.

And rather than compete to make their products healthier, restaurant chains are competing with each other to make their appetizers, entrées, and desserts bigger, badder, and cheesier than ever before.

“Burgers, pizzas, and quesadillas were never health foods to begin with, but many restaurants are transmogrifying these foods into ever-more harmful new creations, and then keeping you in the dark about what they contain,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “Now we see lasagna with meatballs on top; ice cream with cookies, brownies, and candy mixed in; ‘Ranchiladas,’ bacon cheeseburger pizzas, buffalo-chicken-stuffed quesadillas, and other hybrid horribles that are seemingly designed to promote obesity, heart disease, and stroke.”

Some of the “X-Treme Eating” options highlighted in the March issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter include:

• Ruby Tuesday’s “Colossal Burger.” Ruby Tuesday actually became the first big chain to put nutrition information on its menus. Unfortunately it scrapped that initiative, presumably because it meant the sale of fewer Colossal Burgers. With 1,940 calories and 141 grams of fat (more than two days’ worth!), one of these megaburgers is equivalent to about five McDonald’s Quarter Pounders.

• Uno Chicago Grill’s “Pizza Skins.” “We start with our famous deep dish crust, add mozzarella and red bliss mashed potatoes, and top it off with crispy bacon, cheddar, and sour cream,” says the menu. The menu doesn’t disclose that this fusion of pizza and potato skins—which is meant to precede a meal of pizza—packs 2,050 calories, 48 grams of saturated fat, and 3,140 milligrams of sodium (more than a day’s worth). “Even if you split it with two other people, it’s like eating dinner before your dinner even hits the table,” Jacobson said.

• Ruby Tuesday’s “Fresh Chicken & Broccoli Pasta.” Pity the poor diner who thinks this healthy sounding entrée is on the light side: Thanks to its parmesan cream sauce and layer of melted cheese, the 2,060 calories and 128 grams of fat make it the equivalent of two 12-ounce sirloin steaks, two buttered baked potatoes, and two Caesar salads. (CSPI calls this dish “Angioplasta.”)

• Cheesecake Factory’s “Chris’ Outrageous Chocolate Cake.” There’s room enough on Cheesecake Factory’s sprawling menu for advertisements, but evidently no room for nutrition information. If one is undecided among brownie, pie, or cheesecake for dessert, this 1,380-calorie menu item helpfully provides all of the above. It’s the equivalent of eating two Quarter Pounders plus a large fries—for dessert.

Though fast-food chains or coffee shops typically serve much smaller portions than these and other major table-service restaurants, they too can provide some startlingly high-calorie items. A venti-sized White Chocolate Mocha and a blueberry scone from Starbucks would provide 1,100 calories—or about as much as one would find in a Burger King bacon double cheeseburger, medium fries, and medium Coke.

“Americans eat out on average about four meals a week,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “Studies show that women who eat out more than five times a week eat 300 more calories per day on average than women who eat out less often. With dishes like these, it’s easy blow your diet not just for the day but for the whole week.”

Thanks to a courageous move by the New York City Board of Health and the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many chain restaurants that operate in the Big Apple will be required to list calories on menus and menu boards starting this summer. CSPI says the time is ripe for other cities, states, and Congress to pass Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) legislation. Such bills, which have been introduced in 19 cities and states in recent years, would apply only to standardized menu items at chain restaurants.

Councilmember Phil Mendelson of the District of Columbia today announced he will reintroduce legislation that would require chain restaurants operating in the nation’s capital to list calories on fast-food menu boards, and calories, saturated plus trans fat, sodium, and carbohydrates on printed menus. Only chains with 10 or more locations nationally would be covered by the ordinance, not smaller chains or independent restaurants, and only for standardized menu items, not special orders or daily specials.

“Obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases shorten the lifespan of too many of our citizens, and exact an enormous share of our health-care dollars,” said Mendelson. “Menu labeling, like any one thing, won’t solve the obesity epidemic, but it’s one more thing that would help consumers make the healthier choices, if that’s what they want to do.”

Federal MEAL Acts were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in the last Congress and are expected to be reintroduced this year.

“When nutrition labeling took effect for packaged foods, it revolutionized the supermarket, and greatly expanded the number of healthy options for shoppers to choose from,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the MEAL Act’s lead sponsor in the House. “Nutrition labeling at chain restaurants would help Americans exercise personal responsibility and encourage the restaurant industry to exercise corporate responsibility.”

While McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast-food chains publish nutrition brochures, they’re often hard to find in restaurants or are absent altogether, according to CSPI. And while some table-service chains may list a little nutrition information for lighter fare, none list nutrition information for all of their standardized items. But, those occasional steps in the right direction do prove that big chain restaurants will be easily able to comply with MEAL Act-style labeling laws, despite the claims to the contrary by industry lobbyists, according to CSPI.

The numbers in “X-treme Eating” come from the companies themselves, though obviously not from the companies’ menus.

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