On the Side: How much is that burger in calories?

Posted: November 06, 2008

Very soon - possibly as early as today - City Council is going to vote on a bill that asks big chains like Wendy's or Applebee's to level with their customers: to post the number of calories in their meals in plain sight.

It will require other nutritional data to be available. But calorie counts - the quickest way to judge what items will make you fat - will have to be posted on menu boards, or on the menu at your table.

Just like the prices.

Not cringing on the back of a tray-liner or the side of a bag. Or on a Web site - like you're going to go online standing in line.

Here are the top 10 reasons why it should be passed:

1. How else do you know what's in what you're eating? What you see isn't what you think you get: An innocent-sounding Ruby Tuesday turkey burger with fries? That's 1,171 calories, folks, half what you need for the entire day.

And that's just lunch.

Think that's tricky? How about this: Burger King's Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich weighs in at 100 calories more than the all-beef Whopper. When did beef get lower-cal than bird?

2. Not to worry. It won't apply to Tony Luke's or Geno's or Pat's. It's only for big chains (over 15 outlets) and for their standard menus. You can still eat your home-grown cheesesteak in blissful ignorance.

3. In case you were wondering, the average Philly cheesesteak runs 1,100 calories or more, about what you'd get in half a Bloomin' Onion appetizer at Outback Steakhouse. (Who would have guessed - without seeing it in black and white - that half a bloomin' onion had as many calories as a whole cheesesteak wid?)

4. Blissful ignorance is over-rated. (See off-the-charts obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates, City of Philadelphia.)

5. New York put the same sort of posting rule in place this summer, and guess what? The newspaper there reports that Dunkin' Donuts has added a low-calorie egg-white breakfast sandwich, Cosi offers low-fat mayonnaise, and McDonald's large french fries have shaved off 70 calories. Quizno's is testing out smaller sandwiches, leaner fillings. Coincidence?

6. One of the biggest chain groups is saying, "No problem." That would be Yum Brands, the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. They've announced they'll voluntarily post calories in the coming months. Maybe they've been impressed with what happened at the Le Pain Quotidien outlets in the Big Apple: Lower cal open-faced sandwiches became best sellers, edging out the fatties - even the cheaper ones - once the menu boards went up!

7. Aren't you glad they have those "Nutrition Facts" labels on packaged foods at the supermarket? That hasn't turned us socialist, has it?

8. If chains have to show their cards on the menu boards, aren't they likely to think twice about how it looks to list dishes with grossly excessive calorie counts? Maybe they'll even drop them. What a shame.

9. And say they shrink portion sizes a little (or fill out the plate with salad) to keep the calorie totals from looking too ugly, well, then hoo-ray for that!

10. This isn't about government telling you what to eat. It's about you getting to tell the chains what you want to eat after they level with you.

Sort of, well, like voting.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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