What’s on the menu? Caloric labeling is required in Maine restaurants — or is it?

Eric Zelz | BDN
Posted June 06, 2011, at 9 p.m.
Last modified June 07, 2011, at 9:44 a.m.

How many calories are in that cheeseburger? Which is worse, or better: the fried fish sandwich or the grilled chicken salad? Vanilla milkshake versus iced cappuccino? Apple pie, tiramisu or brownie a la mode?

When it comes to calories, it’s hard to have it your way if you don’t know what you’re ordering. But don’t look to Maine’s chain restaurants, necessarily, to tell you. That information was expected to appear consistently on menus and menu boards earlier this year, but in most cases, it won’t be there anytime soon.

Back in February, a new law took effect in Maine that requires fast-food outlets and other restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to post the calorie content of each item prominently on their menus or menu boards. That includes not only the major fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Horton’s, but also somewhat more formal operations such as Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Unos and the various steakhouse options.

But on a recent iced coffee run to a local burger chain, the BDN found no such information posted. Asked, a clerk produced a paper sheet from behind the counter with extensive nutritional information on one side. On the flip side, the sheet featured an image of a delectable-looking double cheeseburger and a frosty chocolate shake. It was a tray liner, and guess which side goes up? (Hint: It’s not the side with the nutritional information.)

A call to the state Department of Health and Human Services clarified the situation: Maine’s menu labeling law is in effect, but it is not currently being enforced. That’s because a provision in the new federal health reform law also mandates menu labeling, and it is unclear how the two sets of regulations will interact. So Maine is awaiting the new federal rules, which likely won’t be finished until the end of this year and then implemented six months later. In the meantime,  restaurant chains are free to do as they please, and you are on your own.

That doesn’t mean you have to remain in the dark about your favorite menu items. Some chain restaurants will provide nutritional information if you ask for it. Others post information online, so you can take a few minutes before you leave home, or use your smartphone, to come up with a game plan for minimizing the damage to your diet.

That plan might, for example, include staying far away from the formidable Moosebreath Burger with cheese at Bugaboo Creek Steak House, which packs an impressive 742 calories, or more than one-third of the total recommended daily calories for just about anyone who isn’t an actual full-time lumberjack. And with almost half those calories coming from fat … well, really.

But if Bugaboo Creek is on your family’s list of unavoidable favorites, you could look forward to the grilled rainbow trout with lemon pepper seasoning, for a modest 352 calories. Or a bowl of tortilla soup for 361 calories. Just remember that adding cheese, croutons or a side of fries will drive up the calories dramatically, so you’ll want to check out the website ahead of time and stick to your plan. Forewarned is forearmed.

While the information on some websites is quite complete — Olive Garden’s is a great example — the process of selecting and comparing menu items online can be time-consuming and requires a considerable degree of patience and foresight.

Applebee’s, on the other hand, provides calorie content right on the menu in the restaurant. It’s a practice the company adopts on a region-to-region basis, reflecting states’ menu-labeling laws. In Maine, that means that every item — from the grilled shrimp and spinach salad to the tomato-basil soup to the 16-ounce beer and the brownie bite — has a calorie value printed right next to it on the menu. It’s all right there: the good, the bad and the really, seriously ugly. So doing a quick calculation right at the table is not only possible, it’s almost unavoidable. Just remember to factor in  the optional calories that come hidden in the “extras” — a packet of sugar (20 calories) or a couple of tablespoons of ranch dressing (150 calories).

On one recent visit, the friendly Applebee’s server said customers frequently pause over the menu information and end up choosing something with a lower calorie count than their original choice.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, gee, why did you have to put that on there — it’s my favorite dish on the menu,’” he said. “But then they get something different, and it’s usually a little healthier.”

Americans eat a lot of meals out. Whether you’re on an official diet or just trying to make good choices about what you eat, knowing the caloric content of the food you order is key. And until menu labeling becomes the standard in chain restaurants, it’s worth doing a little homework to keep yourself on track.

 

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