Would you still order that smothered pork burrito if you knew it contained more than 1,300 calories? What about that 1,500-calorie shake with peanut butter candies?
A federal rule that took effect this week requires all restaurant, grocery and convenience store chains with 20 or more locations to post the number of calories contained in standard items. The calories must be visible on printed menus as well as menu boards.
Most of the large food chains began displaying calorie counts after Congress passed the menu-labeling law in 2010. That means new compliance efforts will be most noticeable at midsize and regional businesses.
Public health groups say calorie counts are needed to help consumers make healthier choices — especially in an era when people eat out regularly.
Those in the food industry say the rule is expensive and difficult to implement.
At Arctic Circle, for example, the popular Black Angus Ranch Burger with cheese is 562 calories, while regular fries are 207 calories. The famous fry sauce is 80 calories per serving, but the Reese’s Peanut Butter shake is 1,500 calories.
According to U.S. dietary guidelines, an average woman needs to eat about 2,000 calories a day to maintain her weight; an average man needs 2,500 calories.
At Costa Vida, a pork burrito made with a flour tortilla, cheese, black beans and red sauce comes in at about 1,300 calories. Conversely, the enchilada kids meal with grilled chicken and a side of black beans and rice is 350 calories.
“I didn’t even notice them,” customer Jared Pratt said of the new calorie counts at the Costa Vida restaurant at The Gateway in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Pratt, who works at a financial business nearby, said he will pay more attention the next time he visits. But he wasn’t sure the calorie counts would change what he eats. “I usually just order the lunch special.”
His co-worker Chris Hutchinson also was ambivalent about the new calorie numbers. “I don’t pay attention to them,” he said.
That’s not the case with Deanne Uriona, who always wants to know calories. “It’s a balance of what I want to eat and what I should eat,” she said, as she was finishing her Costa Vida enchilada kids meal with beans, but no rice.
The federal government’s original compliance date for the calorie numbers had been May 2017, but the deadline was extended.
Rather than wait, Arctic Circle posted the calorie counts about a year ago at all 65 restaurants in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, said Joe Evans, the company’s vice president of marketing and advertising.
“We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars to redo all of the menus, both inside and outside at our drive-up windows,” he said.
That is a major expense for a midsize company, he said. “We’re not McDonald’s.”
In addition to the calorie counts, businesses must provide other nutrition information in written form upon request. The written information includes total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and protein.
Evans said all that nutritional information has been available on Arctic Circle’s website for several years.
Has it changed customer eating patterns?
Evans said the company hasn’t noticed a significant drop in sales for shakes or hamburgers.
“When people eat out at certain places, it’s for convenience or a treat,” he said. “But if the calorie information is important to them, it’s there.”
Before the calorie counts were in place, Evans said more customers contacted the company with concerns about food allergens, such as peanuts or wheat, than dietary questions.
Customers, however, have complained that adding the calorie counts makes the menu difficult to read, Evans said. Once the company put item names, prices and calorie counts on the menu boards, “they look like an eye chart.”