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Restaurants reveal calories under new law

FRESNO, Calif. — You can still order a Bloomin' Onion at Outback Steakhouse, a slice of 30th anniversary chocolate cake cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory, and a Pizookie at BJ's Restaurant Brewhouse.

But you'll have a harder time enjoying them in blissful ignorance. Since July 1, chains with at least 20 restaurants in California have been required to provide diners with the gory nutritional details — including calories.

The law — similar to others in New York, Washington state and elsewhere — already is beginning to change how restaurants sell food, even beyond California. And customers, startled to see how many calories they have ordered, are changing their habits as well.

"Most people know eating out is bad," said Jennifer Massingham of Fresno, Calif. "But they assume it's just a couple extra calories, not hundreds or thousands."

During a recent visit to BJ's in Fresno, Massingham and her husband had planned to order an appetizer, entrees and a Pizookie (a large deep-dish cookie topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream).

But the Pizookie alone can contain as much as 1,166 calories, the couple learned by reading the back section of their menus. So they changed their plans, ordering only entrees instead.

Sally Noxon had a similar experience at an Outback last week.

"It was so depressing," said Noxon, who was celebrating her friend's birthday. "I couldn't believe the calories in the food."

During past visits, her typical meal started by splitting a Bloomin' Onion, the battered, fried onion served with dipping sauce. Then she'd have a steak and salad and share a dessert.

After reading the nutritional information in a brochure at the table, she chose a soup and a salad — and didn't even finish the soup.

The information "does change what you end up wanting to eat," said Massingham, who was surprised by the Bloomin' Onion's 1,560 calories.

But her friend, Jordan Zack, had a different take. "You don't want to know the calories on any day, especially not on your birthday," he said. "I just want to enjoy my food."

There's evidence that providing nutritional details does change the way diners eat. A February survey of 755 New York residents found that 82 percent of customers switched their orders after seeing the information, says Technomic, a Chicago food-industry consultancy that's studying the effects of the New York City law. Of these diners, 71 percent choose dishes with fewer calories.

Seeing the nutritional information also caused 60 percent of those surveyed to change where they eat. Of these folks, 38 percent don't eat out as often as before. And 32 percent say they've stopped visiting certain restaurants altogether.

For the first phase of the law in California, restaurants can provide brochures detailing calories, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sodium. Or they can print just the calorie counts directly on menus or indoor menu boards, said Lara Dunbar, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Restaurant Association.

The Cheesecake Factory, for example, shows calorie counts next to cheesecakes in the dessert display case. Hooters prints calorie counts directly on its menus. McDonald's has a nutritional poster and brochures — and even prints some information on Happy Meal bags.

The second phase of the law starts January 1, 2011. California restaurants must print calories on menus or indoor menu boards, Dunbar said.

Health-conscious chains see the laws as an opportunity to court customers. Take Romano's Macaroni Grill, which launched an "Italian Mediterranean" menu in California restaurants on July 1. This lighter menu features seven new dishes, as well as 13 revamped ones.

The most dramatic change was the scallops and spinach salad, which dropped from 1,270calories to 390 calories — all without altering the entree's portion size, says Larry Nedwed, a senior brand manager for Macaroni Grill.

The chain simplified the dressing to a blend of extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice, Nedwed said. It also added whole jumbo sea scallops for better flavor. As a result, the salad's saturated fat fell from 27 grams to 4 grams.

"Our guests prefer the new recipe," Nedwed said. "They're ordering it five times more than they did before."

Come Labor Day, Macaroni Grill's restaurants will feature the new menu nationwide. The chain slowly is shifting its entire menu to the lighter Italian Mediterranean theme.

There isn't any research to show whether Macaroni Grill's results are typical, said Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association.

But adding healthful food to menus has been trendy for a long time. "And I think that will continue," he said.

That's one result supporters of the California law like. Even fast-food restaurants have been adding healthier fare, said Kumar Chandran of California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit that tries to help low-income families gain access to nutritious food.

More lower-calorie choices on menus is good, but diners still need to consider the nutritional information in context, said Judy Osterloh, the director of food and clinical nutrition services for Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center.

She advises following the American Heart Association's daily recommended amounts of calories, sodium and saturated fat.

For example, saturated fat should be less than 7 percent of total daily calories. To make the comparison, multiply the grams of fat by 9, Osterloh says.

As for sodium, the American Heart Association recommends eating less than 2,300 milligrams per day. African Americans, middle-aged and older adults, and those with high blood pressure need less than 1,500 milligrams per day.

"You can't tell how much sodium is in a food just by the way it tastes," Osterloh says.

Outback's baby-back ribs with Aussie fries have 21,052 milligrams of sodium — about nine days of the recommended daily amount.

And for those counting calories, the American Heart Association recommends eating 1,600-3,000 per day, depending on a person's gender, age, physical activity and health. A chart called "Know How Many Calories You Should Eat" is available at www.americanheart.org.

Limiting a restaurant meal to about one-third of the day's calories is reasonable, Osterloh says. "One way to keep the calories down is to share your meal."