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That’s HOW Many Calories?!

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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