That’s HOW Many Calories?!

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Red Robin's Towering Onion Rings, as shown on its website, redrobin.com.

Editor’s note: We are pleased to introduce our summer intern, Alisha Gorder, a student at Lewis and Clark College. This is her debut story with A News Cafe.

1,220. 1,770. 2,430 — Answers to hard math, or the calorie content of your favorite chain-restaurant menu item?

In this case, it’s the latter, if you happen to enjoy Olive Garden’s Fettuccine Alfredo (1,220 calories), Red Robin’s Towering Onion Rings (1,770), or a Classic Bear Claw from Black Bear Diner (2,430), those restaurants’ websites show.

A recent California law transitions calories from the abstract to the menu and provides chain-restaurant patrons the mixed blessing of knowing exactly how many calories each menu item contains. This regulation, put into effect in January, made it mandatory for restaurants with at least 20 similar locations in the state to display the calorie content of all menu items, either directly on the menu or on the menu board.

The law intends to provide customers the opportunity to make a well-informed ordering decision and caters to an expanding health-conscious population. However, this increase in knowledge has not seemed to drastically change ordering habits of consumers in the North State, local restaurant owners say. Individuals primarily order what they like, even if it is a zucchini walnut muffin (490 calories) and grande White Chocolate Mocha with whipped cream (470 calories) from Starbucks, all before 10 a.m., totaling almost 1,000 calories. That’s  half the recommended calories an average-sized person needs daily.

That said, a glance at Starbucks’ menu board alerts customers to lower calorie alternatives, such as the Strawberry Vivanno Smoothie (280 calories) and Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal (140 calories). Some customers, such as Starbucks patron Sue Kilmer, may be more concerned with content than calories. While Kilmer notes that a startlingly high calorie content may cause her to think twice about a menu item, she said she is not going to make her purchasing decisions based on calories alone.

“Posted calories haven’t really changed people’s ordering habits,” said Rick Wigodsky, manager at Jamba Juice on Dana Drive. “The people that benefit from the calories posted are the ones that watch their calories.”

Patty Landaker, owner of the Redding sandwich shop Togo’s, agreed.

Togo's Menu Board, showing prices and calories

“Since we have implemented the calorie counts displayed on menu boards we have not experienced any direct sales correspondence or changes of any one item or group of like items,” she said. “We have not experienced the decline of any high-calorie-count menu items that would indicate a correspondence with the new law.”

This appears to ring true for other chain establishments, fast-food and sit-down restaurants alike. Food costs are another factor when it comes to ordering, particularly at fast food restaurants that tout tantalizing deals on dollar menus.

“Price is often the customer’s highest consideration,” said Ryan Blackstone, manager of McDonald’s in Shasta Lake.

Nevertheless, a McDonald’s Premium Caesar Salad with Newman’s Own Low Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette costs about $5 and contains about 130 calories, proving that food can be both nutritious and affordable.

Katie Bramblett, manager at Chevy’s restaurant in Redding, said she does think people are more conscious now that the calorie content is directly in front of them on the menu. Furthermore, several chain restaurants, including Chevy’s, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden, have published alternative menus on HealthyDiningFinder.com that highlight dishes with lower calorie and sodium counts. Bramblett said that she’s noticed some customers asking specifically about these items.

At Togo’s, Landaker has also experienced inquiries from customers regarding the calorie count, but added, “These customers are few and do not appear to have impacted our overall sales trends.”

The law has encouraged restaurants such as Chevy’s to modify recipes to include reduced-fat cheese or less sodium in order to produce food with a calorie content that may be more appealing to customers, manager Bramblett said. McDonald’s has also responding to growing interest in healthier selections by increasing the number of salads and snack size selections on the menu and eliminating the option to “supersize.”

Trudi Pratt, a Redding chiropractor and clinical nutritionist, wonders if most people understand how many calories they should be eating each day.

“There’s no class in school that teaches the value of calories,” she said. “It’s not obvious on the Internet. It’s basically hard info to find.”

Smaller, non-chain restaurants aren’t required by the law to disclose calorie counts. In addition, the cost and time involved in determining the caloric makeup of every menu item may be daunting. But Senor Rosas is one example of a local, non-corporate restaurant that is making an exception. Owner Andy Freeman is working with a nutritionist with plans to post nutritional information on the restaurant’s Facebook page, he said.

Follow this link to Section 114094 of the California Health and Safety code to read about the menu labeling law in detail.

Alisha Gorder, born and raised in Redding, is attending Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where she is studying English. She enjoys yoga, hiking, and watching reruns of “Friends,” and is excited to try her hand at journalism as an intern with A News Cafe this summer.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Alisha Gorder
Originally from Redding, CA, Alisha Gorder lives and writes in Portland, OR.
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11 Responses

  1. Seeing the calories counts on the menu has most definitely changed my ordering habits — I am astounded by the calorie counts on restaurant menus. Chock up another good reason for eating at home – where we get to control portion size and pile on the fresh vegetables.

  2. Avatar Scott says:

    I agree, Erin. And, I use it as a tool with my kids to try and help them understand portion size AND the need to balance calorie intake over the course of the day—so that if they splurge at one meal, they need to compensate at others. I only wish fat content were shown, too. Coincidentally, we were in Togo's just last week and saw the numbers on the menu. If you can believe it, seeing the calorie count in his favorite sandwich—and being shocked by how high it was—prompted my normally ravenous fourteen-year-old son to order a small rather than asking if he could get a large, all on his own.

  3. Avatar Mary S. says:

    Seeing the calorie counts on the menu has altered our decisions as well. It's great to see, and I hope more smaller places follow Senoe Rosas' lead. We all need a little reminder from time to time, that eating our favorite, giant burger isn't always a good choice.

  4. Avatar Pamela says:

    I'm often shocked by the calorie counts on menus, as are my 11 and 13 year olds, and it definitely impacts our ordering choices. When the information is right in your face, and you know you are about to consume enough calories for several days in one sitting, it's a little harder to enjoy it.

  5. Avatar Anna says:

    Goodbye my beloved 440 calorie chocolate In N' Out milkshake

  6. Avatar Ron C. says:

    Red Robin's hamburgers: To die for and maybe to die from. They have a food ingredient menu on the table. Do not look at that. Example – wife’s Banzai burger: calories 1,033; fat 20g; salt 1922 mg; carbs 68. Basically your food intake is about one week's worth of the ugly stuff you are otherwise trying to avoid. Mine, a delicious, bloody hamburger: salt and all else was off the chart. Wife handed me my drool cup, which she carries in her purse for my emergencies. At least I will die with a smile on my face. Let’s meet at Red Robin and force these ugly menus off our tables. I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it any more.

  7. Avatar Budd Hodges says:

    Alisha…Good article and welcome to Redding and Anewscafe.com.

    Ha, I too am fond of heart attack on a plate with big red meat and salty juicy fries.

    Enough so that the calorie police might come out for a bust.

  8. I have always watched my diet and eating out is the hardest part of any food restricted diet. This new system makes it much easier to not only make choices but to know how to count the higher calorie choices. I appreciate being able to go into a fast food restaurant on the road, for instance, and know that I can keep my diet in check.

  9. Avatar Canda says:

    Welcome, Alisha. You're interning on a fun and friendly site! I'm surprised to hear so many restaurant owners haven't noticed a drop in the ordering of high caloric meals. As with most of the comments on your article, we also take calories into consideration when eating out (ok, most of the time). I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    • Welcome Alisha, great article! I have been teaching people about nutrition for 30 years. The fast food calorie guides have been available behind the counter for over 20 years. That is about how long it's been since I've eaten at one. I think people who care about themselves and those who love them will think twice about eating 1000 calorie meal of fat and salt. The bottom line is when we hurt ourselves, we hurt others. The health care system is a total wreck because of irresponsible lifestyle choices. It's not because of doctors or hospitals. If Americans would get off the couch, put down the coke and go for a walk there would be no health care crisis. So YEAH for the awakening about food! You Are What You Eat right?

      Still trying to awaken people….

      Nancy

  10. Avatar LizAnn says:

    I think the abysmal state of our healthcare system stems from greed– that of insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, their lobbyists and complicit "public" servants who really only serve those who line their pockets. For all we know, these facts trigger "stress eating" in those with oversize appetites.