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Bid to Print Nutrition Facts on Menus Raises Debate

January 14, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Lee Hochberg reports on the debate in some cities and states over laws that would require restaurants to display nutritional information on their menus. Lawmakers hope the policy would benefit diners with certain health conditions, while restaurant owners are concerned about additional costs.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, nutritional information on restaurant menus. NewsHour correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: At the Iris Grill near Seattle, Michael Brown eyed the pan-roasted, free-range chicken on the menu.

LORI BROWN: I think I’m going to do seafood, but I’m not sure.

LEE HOCHBERG: His wife, Lori, considered the salmon with saut├⌐ed bacon and spinach. But as good as the menu looked, it didn’t tell the couple what they needed to know.

LORI BROWN: I’m a little concerned about the fat content, you know, how they prepare it. It’s got bacon in it, so…

MICHAEL BROWN: I’m debating on the chicken.

LORI BROWN: Is there a sauce on it or…

MICHAEL BROWN: Yes, it says chicken glaze, but I don’t know what’s in it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Michael has Type II diabetes. Like 18 million Americans — including his father, who died of the disease — he has to watch his diet. And Lori recently discovered she’s one of more than 100 million Americans with high cholesterol.

LORI BROWN: It’s more of a Russian roulette, because you don’t know exactly how much is in each dish, how much fat, how many fat grams, how many carbs for him.

MICHAEL BROWN: You’re truly kind of at a loss as to exactly what you’re eating.

LORI BROWN: On this salmon, it’s got bacon. How much bacon is it, just the — I’m just trying to figure out how much fat is actually in it…

Law aims to improve public health

LEE HOCHBERG: It's for people like the Browns that the Seattle-King County Health Department recently passed a toughest-in-the-nation rule on restaurant menus. As of next summer, it will require restaurants with 10 or more national locations to display on their menus the calorie, carbohydrate, trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium content of each dish.

LORI BROWN: We don't want to put ourselves at risk. We need that information to make those choices.

LEE HOCHBERG: New York City passed a law in March requiring that menus list calories, but it was overturned on a technicality. A new law will be debated there in January.

Eighteen other cities and states have menu laws in the pipeline. Despite the fact that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently vetoed such a law in California, Seattle health director Dr. David Fleming says it's a public health matter.

DR. DAVID FLEMING, Director of Public Health: We're dealing with an epidemic nationally, but also in King County, of obesity. Our county, out of 1.8 million people, more then 700,000 meet the definition for being overweight or obese. That epidemic is going to do nothing but get worse unless measures are taken to reduce overweight.

LEE HOCHBERG: Fleming says people eat out more than ever before. Nearly half of $900 billion U.S. food dollars today are spent on restaurant food, which often is higher in fat, sugar and calories than food prepared at home.

DR. DAVID FLEMING: You don't know, I don't know, the average person really doesn't know in any given restaurant what has been used to prepare that meal.

Americans ignorant on nutrition

LEE HOCHBERG: To illustrate its point, that people know little about what they're actually ordering, the health department drew up this food quiz with questions like this. "At McDonald's, which of these three menus items contains the most calories, a Big Mac, two Egg McMuffins, or a large chocolate shake?"

SEATTLE RESIDENT: I think it's the Big Mac.

SEATTLE RESIDENT: I think it's two Egg McMuffins.

SEATTLE RESIDENT: Probably the Big Mac has the most calories.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nobody we talked to correctly guessed it's the shake, which at 1,160 calories has twice as many as the other items and half an adult's recommended intake for an entire day.

SEATTLE RESIDENT: Wow, that's pretty -- a lot, OK. Goodness gracious. You never can tell with that.

LEE HOCHBERG: The chocolate shake has 1,160 calories.

SEATTLE RESIDENT: Oh, my lord, that's terrible. We didn't get a chocolate shake, thank goodness.

LEE HOCHBERG: Three-fourths of the nearly 400 respondents tested by King County got this and the three other questions on the quiz wrong.

LEE HOCHBERG: But putting the weight of the obesity problem on restaurants is unfair, according to Lane Hoss, who represents Anthony's Seafood Restaurants, an upscale Seattle chain. Anthony's and other restaurants are negotiating with the city on the details of the rule.

LANE HOSS, Anthony's Restaurants: It is not the sole reason. It's not 50 percent of the reason why America is obese. The question of exercise, you know, we've taken exercise out of the schools and sports out of schools, so it's a bigger issue then just what you eat in a restaurant.

LEE HOCHBERG: She doubts Anthony's customers are hungry for health information.

LANE HOSS: You're on your anniversary date. Do you really want to look and see how many calories are in your favorite dish? Going out to dinner for many people is their escape, and they may not want to be educated.

LEE HOCHBERG: And she says health information will clutter menus, as in this mockup the company produced.

LANE HOSS: So you'd be sitting down to dinner, and you'd open up your menu, you'd be opening up your menu, and you'd be opening up your menu, and you'd be opening up the menu.

And you're sitting in your seat, and the person next to you has this same menu, and the person across from you has this same menu.

Eateries complain of higher costs

LEE HOCHBERG: In fact, new menus needn't be this long. While the rules require nutrition information be in the same type size as the entrée description, in can be presented in bullet points or other more concise ways.

Still, restaurant owners say longer menus and often changing recipes will mean higher printing costs. And there's the $1,000 per menu item the nutritional data analysis could cost.

SEATTLE OFFICIAL: I'm going to be nutritional analysis on a standard hamburger.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Seattle officials say it needn't be expensive at all. The city demonstrated a $500 computer program that calculates nutritional information...

SEATTLE OFFICIAL: Some pickle relish.

LEE HOCHBERG: ... simply by entering its recipe.

SEATTLE OFFICIAL: Here's the label. It says it has 581 calories, 31 grams of fat, for example. And then I can print this off.

LEE HOCHBERG: The health department speculates menu labeling will actually become a money-maker for restaurants, with customers favoring those with the information.

Restaurants aren't sure about that. The Ruby Tuesday chain tried menu labeling in 2004, but abandoned it when customers showed no appetite for it. The company says there are better ways to provide information.

Today, its waitresses bring a nutritional menu to a customer's table when asked, which the company says is infrequently.

Subway prints nutrition data on its sneeze guards and on napkins and handouts. McDonald's and others list it on their Web sites. But Seattle's health director says it needs to be at the point of sale.

DR. DAVID FLEMING: When I go out for lunch, or go out for dinner, or go to a fast food restaurant or a chain, that's not necessarily something that I anticipate that morning and think about, "Gee, I need to go to the Internet to see how many calories are going to be in the food that I'm eating." That information needs to be available in a readable format at the point of purchase adjacent to the price.

LEE HOCHBERG: Subway, which already markets its low-fat sandwich choices, says it will support the new rule. It says it "has long advocated providing easily accessible menu nutrition information to customers."

Advocates say labeling helps

LEE HOCHBERG: But the real question is whether menu labeling will help people lose weight. Evidence is sparse, but the U.S. surgeon general, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association all support it.

Epidemiologist Barbara Bruemmer notes studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA which find shoppers in grocery stores have embraced nutritional labeling.

BARBARA BRUEMMER, Epidemiologist: In grocery stores, about 80 percent of individuals say that they do use labels, that they do look at labels. And 50 percent tell us that they do change their mind of what they're going to buy in a grocery store after looking at the label.

LEE HOCHBERG: The restaurant industry says, instead of labels, what's really needed is for America to add nutrition education to its diet. They point to a study they commissioned with this Seattle volunteer.

WAITER: And cheese or bacon on that?

JARED LATHROP WEBBER: No, can I have no cheese or bacon? And does that come with a wheat bun?

WAITER: I believe it does.

LEE HOCHBERG: Jared Lathrop Webber ate out three meals a day for a month and met four times with a nutritionist to learn how to make good choices.

JARED LATHROP WEBBER: Seeing the nutritionist, and showing me what portion sizes are, and what we're supposed to be eating, that is something I will remember.

LEE HOCHBERG: Despite eating out so much, he lost six pounds and lowered his blood pressure by 25 points. The city says, if everybody got free visits to a nutritionist, they'd all be better off. But in the meantime, it's crucial that they get information wherever they can, even off the menu.