Here's some food for thought: The number of calories in your combo meal is now as prominently displayed as the item's price. Ignorance can be bliss when biting into a bacon cheeseburger. But California — and soon federal — laws are requiring many restaurants to inform patrons of the caloric intake of what they are savoring.
As he sat in a plush booth at A&W Root Beer on East Lodi Avenue waiting for his order and sipping a root beer, Arin Singh talked with his friends about the amount of calories he was about to ingest. Thanks to a California law that went into effect New Year's Day, patrons like Singh now know exactly how many calories come in their cheese curds and barbecue chicken sandwiches.
"It's cool to know," said Singh about calorie information. "But it's not going to prevent me from ordering something."
In an effort to inform consumers and fight obesity, Sen. Alex Padilla authored Senate Bill 1420, which became law in 2008. The legislation has been implemented in several phases and the most recent mandate requires restaurants with 20 or more locations in California to post the number of calories of each item they serve on the menu. However, the rules are being loosely policed around California as more stringent federal regulations are expected in the coming months.
More changes coming?
Because some sections of California's law overlap with the impending federal regulations, the county is taking an educational approach with businesses that haven't complied yet, said Jeff Carruesco, program coordinator for the San Joaquin County Environmental Health Department.
"We're not writing up (non-compliant restaurants) for violations," he said. "We're waiting for guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration."
Many counties in California are taking this approach, he said. The reason for the soft approach is because the agency doesn't want restaurateurs to post new menus for California's law and then have to purchase separate ones several weeks later to comply with federal regulations.
Peter Knight, owner of Lodi's A&W, said the parent company of his establishment has done most of the legwork and sent his restaurant the compliant menus weeks ago. Yum! Brands, which operates A&W, also oversees KFC, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's.
"The benefit to being in that group is that they jumped on it and didn't wait until last minute," he said.
However, Knight is still responsible for paying for the updated menu boards. The total cost for the boards will be between $800 and $1,500, he said.
He's not concerned that the menus will need to be re-printed, because Yum! Brands generally adopts the most stringent standards for itself, he said.
"I'm assuming they've probably got it covered," he said.
Although there are some scattered restaurants around the state that do not have calorie information posted on their menu boards, Carruesco said the overwhelming majority of chain restaurants in California are compliant.
While in favor of informing consumers, Knight said the law falls short by excluding supermarkets that have delis or cafes inside them.
"You can go into a grocery store and buy Chinese food at their wok, and they've got menus and no calorie counts on that," he said. "There are so many exclusions."
California's legislation was spurred by a study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy that said people who live near fast food restaurants and convenience stores have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than those who live near supermarkets, said Taryn Kinney, a spokesperson for Padilla.
"Because there are healthier options like fresh fruits and vegetables available, the general consensus was that grocery stores were a reasonable exemption," she said.
While eateries owned by grocery stores are not required to list caloric data, independent merchants that rent out space in a store — like a Starbucks or Subway — are required to post information as usual.
Although in favor of the new law, Knight said it doesn't change the fact that people can still ingest the same amount of calories in their own kitchen.
"Realistically, you can buy all the stuff at a store and make the same burger at home, although not as fast," he said.
He also said customers who were worried about the number of calories in an item could cut that number down dramatically by just leaving mayonnaise off.
"Holding the mayo cuts off calories and about six to nine grams of fat per serving," he said.
Do customers notice?
Singh and his three friends conversed about their impending caloric intake while waiting for their meals to arrive and debated if it mattered. Patrick Cook, who was seated next to Singh, said the larger numbers could shock customers into ordering another item, but doubted it would cause someone to leave a restaurant.
Knight said customers have commented on the look of the signs and the information displayed on them, but no one has said they changed their order based on what they saw.
The regulation is helpful, but isn't as informative as it seems, Singh said.
"If you're coming to a fast food restaurant, you already know what you are in for."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.