Calorie counts on menus only hint at nutrition value

By Eleanor Blick

I didn’t really want to know a bowl of macaroni and cheese has almost 1,000 calories.

As part of the health care legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama in March, it will become a federal requirement for restaurants with 20 locations or more to post calorie counts alongside menu items by March 23, 2011.Some cities and states already had similar guidelines in place, but the law creates a national standard as part of an effort to address the nation’s problems with obesity, heart disease and other health concerns.

As people might have noticed, Panera Bread is ahead of the curve.  All the corperate stores have had calorie content posted on menus since April in order to test consumer reaction. Following regulations, calorie information has to be printed in the same size type as the menu item or price— whichever is larger.

Thanks, Obama, for ruining my macaroni. At least it’s fewer calories than McDonald’s Mushroom and Swiss Burger Value

Meal, right?

Providing calorie information is a big step in the right direction when trying to better inform consumers, but many people don’t know how to digest those numbers.

Calorie counts are a good way to get people thinking about the content, ingredients and proportions of food they eat, but feeding your body properly can’t come from calorie counting alone. Two bowls of Panera’s macaroni get you near the average recommendation of 2,000 calories for the day, but macaroni isn’t going to help your arteries any time soon.

Critics of the new rules argue a heightened level of personal responsibility is needed more than in-your-face calorie counts. But understanding what the menu number means is the next step many Americans aren’t equipped to take. Unfortunately, the intricacy of nutrition facts is something rarely taught in schools and is not common knowledge in many homes.

It wasn’t until I enrolled in a college nutrition course that I really learned to dissect the side of a cereal box. Being a vegetarian, I scanned ingredients for years (vegetarian dairy products are harder to find than you think), but I rarely glanced at the nutrition information until I was taught to calculate its meaning.

Panera’s signature macaroni and cheese, for example, weighs in at a whopping 980 calories for the large size, according to its menu board. Considering the dish is composed of noodles, cheese, butter and milk, it can be presumed a lot of those calories come from fat.

Panera lists more detailed nutrition information on its website, which confirms 550 calories worth of fat in the macaroni, or just over 100 percent of the daily recommended fat intake based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

For comparison’s sake, another Panera meal weighing in at nearly the same calorie count would be a turkey sandwich, black bean soup and French baguette slice. With this combination, though, fat only accounts for 180 of the meal’s 920 calories. It is a much healthier fat portion and probably more food than you can finish. Of course, the fat mostly comes from the mayonnaise on the sandwich, which is a separate echelon of nutrition information.

Other restaurants are slowly phasing in calorie counting menus, including Starbucks, which is struggling to redesign its drive-through menus in order to fit the calorie information of so many customizable drinks.

Consequently, drive-through menus will no longer feature the “tall” size, or the smallest, cheapest option with the least calories. A large latte with whole milk has almost as many calories from fat as Panera’s macaroni.

Of course, a menu can’t tell you all of this. All you’re going to get, come March, is a little number next to your favorite sandwich, the meaning of which you’ll have to figure out for yourself. That is, if you want to know.