The health care reform legislation that became law last week served up at least one change that many in the restaurant industry seemed almost relieved to see: the promise of a national standard for nutritional labeling requirements on menus.
"This will ensure the public gets consistent info," said Chris Whalen, vice president of finance for the 34-site Kings restaurant chain based in White Oak, who admits to having kept a close eye on the many labeling plans that have been showing up around the country over the past few years.
The National Restaurant Association quickly claimed the new requirements as a win for diners and the establishments that feed them, even as the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest cheered how easy it will be for Americans to determine if a coffee drink holds 20 calories or 800.
Despite the general rush to welcome the changes, there will be challenges for businesses affected by the new rules, which apply to restaurants with 20 or more locations and vending machine operators with 20 or more machines.
From menus at the table to ordering boards in fast-food drive-through lanes to signs at salad bars, restaurants will need to figure out how to show the number of calories in each item in a way that doesn't take up too much space but also meets whatever instructions federal officials develop for implementing the requirement. The agency review is expected to take at least a year.
Some expect to see a tweaking of recipes and menu offerings as restaurants learn how much consumers actually care about their caloric intake and consumers are confronted with the numbers behind their choices.
"There will be an attempt [by consumers] to cut in the beginning when it's new," predicted J. Lynne Brown, a professor of food science at Penn State University. The shock factor may have some impact on the number of calories people order, at least.
But going out to eat is about indulging, and Dr. Brown said diners often choose dishes because they are filling. "For many people, I don't think this is going to matter."
Still, the Eat'n Park restaurant chain has had a good response to a nutritional calculator on its website that allows people to check out items they might want to order and figure out how the calories might change by substituting certain ingredients.
Since the April 2009 launch, the page has drawn more than 27,000 unique visitors and almost 45,000 page views, said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing of the Homestead chain, which has more than 70 restaurants.
Mr. O'Connell offered the example of a chicken fajita salad that is 731 calories as sold on the menu. More than 300 of those calories come from the Cajun ranch dressing. Substituting a 4-calorie dollop of salsa makes a big difference.
"We make everything to order," he said. Eat'n Park and Kings are both counting on that kind of kitchen system to set them apart from some national chains that might receive menu items from a central kitchen elsewhere. Short-term specials are exempt from the new rule.
In another move to prepare for the expected labeling changes, Kings has been altering its menu format so that each page slides inside a sleeve and can be changed without overhauling the entire document. Over the past six months, the restaurant company also has been auditing its menu item calorie calculations to make sure they are all accurate.
Checking those calculations could be a bit of a headache, said Dr. Brown. Restaurants can use a federal database to figure out, based on ingredients, how many calories an item typically has, although that can be off by 10 percent to 20 percent, she said. It's more accurate to have samples tested by outside labs, but that's more expensive.
She expects the restaurant association to watch closely in the coming months as federal officials develop guidelines on how accurate the estimates need to be and on how big the type on menus will be.
When the new information arrives, consumers may appreciate having it available even if the impact on their behavior isn't what might be expected. A recent study out of Stanford University found posting calories at Starbucks in 2008 caused average calories per transaction to drop about 6 percent in New York City. Consumers didn't change the beverages they bought, they just bought fewer food items or substituted lower-calorie items.
At Eat'n Park, dishes already cited on menus as healthier -- such as baked lemon sole or a veggie burger -- do well, said Mr. O'Connell, but so does the longtime favorite, the two-pattie Original Superburger.
The calorie information at various restaurants should give diners a new tool to use. But restaurants will probably stick with the usual way of marketing food -- by its taste. As important as cutting down on calories is, Mr. O'Connell said, "People don't want to sacrifice taste for health."
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or 412-263-2018.