If you were watching calories, would you go for the chicken Caesar salad at Chili’s or the classic sirloin steak? Subway’s tuna or roast beef sandwich? A Starbucks chai or a cappuccino?...The sheer difficulty of estimating the calories in restaurant food suggests why it would be good to see the numbers, but a law requiring restaurants to show the numbers has some problems. For one thing only some restaurants are covered -- chain restaurants.
The chicken Caesar salad at Chili’s is one of those items that might appear to be a healthier choice, but brace yourself: it contains 1,010 calories and 76 grams of fat, while the sirloin has 540 calories and 42 grams of fat (not counting side dishes).
Nor is a tuna sandwich the low-calorie choice at Subway: it has 530 calories, significantly more than the roast beef sandwich, which has 290. And a chai latte almost always has 100 more calories than a cappuccino of the same size prepared with the same kind of milk....
Some entrees and appetizers provide a staggering amount of calories in a single dish, sometimes more than the 2,000 recommended daily for the average adult. Notorious among nutritionists is the Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse, a battered, deep-fried onion resembling a flower that is served with a dipping sauce. The damage, nutritionists say, is about 2,200 calories and more than 100 grams of fat, most of it trans fat.
Why pick on chain restaurants? Is their food any more fattening or mystifying than the food served in nonchain restaurants? What is a nonchain but a local restaurant that hasn't branched out yet? Is there some idea that a chain restaurant has standardized the product, so it's easier for it to come up with calorie counts? But small differences in preparation can affect the calorie count -- like using 6 tablespoons of dressing instead of 4-- and that can make the displayed counts wrong. Are you going to punish these restaurants if they don't get their cooks to calibrate the ingredients precisely?
Wouldn't it be better to let businesses decide whether they want to respond to customer demand for calorie counts? To facilitate this market process, a more helpful law would be one that excluded any punishment or action for fraud if a restaurant got the calorie count wrong, so that a restaurant that wanted to try to provide this information wouldn't take too much risk. (Remember the low-fat frozen yogurt episode of "Seinfeld"?)
The law could require some additional notice before the restaurant could take advantage of the exclusion from liability, something like: This calorie count is only an estimate and may be incorrect. Please use your own judgment. Then, let anyone who cares about overeating learn a little about portion size and the density of calories in various foods. We may end up just as fat, but we have a chance of getting a little smarter.