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Weighing California's restaurant calorie-listing law

October 1, 2008 |  1:00 pm

Gova1 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill yesterday requiring chain restaurants in California to provide calorie information and other nutritional facts on their menus -- an issue described in The Times' Health section in August in a story by Karen Ravn. In his press conference yesterday, the governor said he was "really pumped up about this." Experts in public health say he's on solid legal ground.

According to an analysis of restaurant labeling laws (which are popping up around the country), governments have the legal authority to enact laws protecting the public's health and safety as well as the power to compel factual disclosures and accurate information, such as safety hazards, in the marketplace. Writing in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from Yale University made these points:

  • Consumption of restaurant food has increased to the point that Americans now spend 47.9% of their food budget on restaurant food.
  • People who dine at fast-food restaurants do so an average of two times a week and heavy users of fast food dine at the eateries 12 times a month.
  • Studies show consumers routinely look at food labels on grocery store products and that this information is helpful in choosing healthier foods.
  • Consumers are typically unable to correctly guess the nutritional content of fast food. One study found nine of 10 people underestimated the calorie content of certain restaurant foods by an average of 600 calories. Another study found that even professional nutritionists underestimated the calorie content of restaurant food by 220 to 680 calories.
  • Portion sizes have increased, which makes calorie estimates more difficult. The only serving size of McDonald's french fries in 1955 is equivalent to the small size now. The largest size available today is triple the original size. Costs haven't gone up as much, however. McDonald's large french fries have 157% more calories than the small portion but only cost 62% more.
  • Studies show that people eat more when served more and that fast-food restaurants are mighty good at serving more. The KFC Chicken and Biscuit Bowl is 870 calories but chicken and biscuits  purchased separately are a little more than half that -- 480 calories.

The new bill will require restaurants in California with 20 or more locations to provide brochures with nutritional information by July 1, 2009. By Jan. 1, 2011, restaurants will need to post calories on their menus and menu boards for all to behold.

The impact of the legislation will take some time to assess. But any improvements in obesity rates will be welcomed, says Schwarzenegger.

"In the last decade Californians have gained 360 million pounds. Think about that for a little bit. Now, when I was in the Austrian Army I drove a tank that weighed 50 tons. Now multiply that by 3,500. That's as many pounds as Californians have gained. That's huge."

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announces the signing of SB 1420 Tuesday at a Chili's Grill and Bar in Elk Grove, Calif. From left to right: California Medical Assn. President Dr. Richard Frankenstein; Department of Public Health Chief Deputy Director Dr. Bonnie Sorensen; Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima); Arnold Schwarzenegger; Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord). Credit: California governor's office.