Calorie 'Sticker Shock'

silverswordJune 3, 2009

New Yorkers try to swallow calorie sticker shock. 600 calorie muffins? The first city to adopt law faces unappetizing surprises.

By Roni Caryn Rabin contributor

updated 5:34 a.m. PT, Wed., July 16, 2008

Although touted as "fat free," a slice of banana chocolate chip cake at Starbucks packs 390 calories, as New Yorkers discovered when the coffee chain began displaying calorie counts to comply with a new New York City law.

Nora Cara was flabbergasted.

She was about to order her usual morning coffee and muffin at Dunkin Donuts when she saw the new calorie labels. The chocolate chip muffin she had her eye on was 630 calories.

"I was blown away," said Cara, a 27-year-old homemaker from Forest Hills in New York City. "IÂm not a no-carb type of person, and I usually donÂt even think about it. But you pick up a little muffin with your coffee, and it has 630 calories in it? ThatÂs a bit extreme!"

New Yorkers have been in the throes of sticker shock since this spring when the Big Apple became the first city in the country to implement a law forcing chain restaurants to post the calorie count of each food in the same size and font as the price.

Restaurants have not exhausted their legal challenges, but the city will start fining violators up to $2,000 beginning Friday, say officials with the cityÂs Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

While some sit-down chains and fast-food eateries are waiting until the last minute, coffee shops like Starbucks  home of the 470 calorie raspberry scone and 610 calorie cookie  have been replacing their menu boards and adding calorie tags to pastries in recent weeks. The result: Do a little eavesdropping in a New York City restaurant, and you may think youÂve stumbled into an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

At T.G.I. FridayÂs, one of the few sit-down chain restaurants to have already added calorie counts to menus, a group of young women gasped as they studied the menu, barely able to find a meal under 1,000 calories, never mind an appetizer or dessert. Both Stephanie Fowler and Lindsay Green asked about the suddenly popular Classic Sirloin  at 290 calories, it was one of the lowest calorie items on the menu  but learned the restaurant ran out by the time the dinner rush started.

Outside the Forest Hills Dunkin Donuts, Juan Restrepo, the 45-year-old owner of a construction company, said he was quitting corn muffins  510 calories!  this time for good.

"My daughter warned me about them," he lamented. "I just didnÂt listen."

Preventing diabetes

Putting the brakes on thoughtlessly inhaling calories is exactly the effect New York City health officials hoped the law would have. They say calorie labels could reduce the number of obese New Yorkers by 150,000 over the next five years, and prevent 30,000 cases of diabetes.

New York is not the only city pushing calorie labels. New laws in Seattle and CaliforniaÂs Santa Clara and San Francisco are scheduled to go into effect later this year, including some more stringent than New YorkÂs, requiring restaurants to post information about sodium, carbs, fats and cholesterol in addition to calories.

Such laws have faced stiff opposition and legal challenges from the restaurant industry. A judge struck down New York CityÂs first calorie labeling law, which would only have applied to fast food restaurants that were already making calorie information available on Web sites or posters. The law was then revised to apply to all chain restaurants with 15 or more outlets nationwide.

"WeÂre still in court, but the ruling is in effect," said New York City health department spokeswoman Jessica Scaperotti. Fines for the restaurants who haven't posted calorie counts by Friday will range from $200 to $2,000 depending on the violation, she said.

Scaperotti said she didn't know what impact the calorie labels have made on consumer choices or sales. But, she said, "We know nutritional information is effective. If you go to the Starbucks near our office in lower Manhattan, the little cookies that are 80 calories each  theyÂre the first ones to go."

1,360 calorie salad

Many New Yorkers are finding that even the foods they thought were lower calorie really arenÂt. Vicki Freedman, who lives in Manhattan, watches her weight and always tries to choose a light option when eating out. But the 26 year old just discovered that the FridayÂs pecan-crusted chicken salad, served with mandarin oranges, dried cranberries and celery, has 1,360 calories.

"That surprised me the most because they market it as a healthy option," she said. "ItÂs like false advertising. You think itÂs better than the burger and the fries. ItÂs misleading." (The cheeseburger served with fries is, indeed, 1,290 calories.)

Meals ordered at sit-down chain restaurants may have more calories than typical takeout fast-food, nutritionists say, because the portions are often larger and an entrée can be served on a plate smothered with French fries. In a takeout restaurant, the fries have to fit into a container, which limits the portion size.

Managers at some restaurants, including an Upper East Side Johnny RocketÂs and Outback Steakhouse, said new menus including calorie counts would be on tables by Friday, or shortly thereafter.

"WeÂre concerned," acknowledged Eric Hagy, proprietor of Outback Steakhouse on Third Avenue in Manhattan. "I donÂt know what effect it will have, but it will bring peopleÂs attention to certain items that are high in calories, like the Bloomin Onion appetizer. It has over 2,000 calories, but itÂs meant to be shared between two or three people."

At a Starbucks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, barista Bishoy Ayoub, 18, said heÂs noticed many customers switching to smaller drinks or reduced-fat drinks since calorie labels were posted several months ago.

ÂTake off the labelsÂ

"Some people actually tell us we should take off the labels, because it discourages them from ordering what they want," he said. "But I think honesty is the best policy."

At a WendyÂs nearby, where calorie counts were just posted next to prices on the menu-boards behind the counter, customers didnÂt flinch. "I figure IÂve got 1,350 calories here on my tray," said Tristan Rowe, 26, who lives in Brooklyn, pointing to his lunch of a chicken club sandwich, junior bacon-cheeseburger, large fries and a large Coke (which actually added up to 1,680 calories). "ItÂs not going to change what I order  IÂm not watching my waistline. I have a very active lifestyle."

Despite the eye-opening revelations, whether New Yorkers will switch to lower calorie meals remains to be seen. They may just switch menus.

ThatÂs what Fowler, the woman who was dining recently with her friends at T.G.I. Friday's, decided to do.

"IÂm so upset," she said, noting some entrees  like the Jack Daniels ribs and shrimp dinner  contain almost 2,000 calories, and the desserts were more of the same (the brownie obsession is 1,500 calories). "I wish they wouldnÂt have done this."

But then Fowler noticed that the waiter had handed her friend an old menu, which didnÂt have calorie counts on it.

"You got a menu without anything on it?" she asked her friend. "Can I have yours?"

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Another good reason for not eating out often. When I do eat out, I take my own low calorie salad dressing with me and order a salad. It works for me. I may get a piece of broiled chicken of fish to go with it, but that's about it.
And when possible, we will frequent "Mom & Pop" restaurants where you can actually ask the cooks what is in the food you wish to order. In many chain restaurants, they don't have a clue as to what the ingredients are because they are not freshly made from scratch.


    Bookmark   June 3, 2009 at 11:42AM
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No wonder it truly is possible to gain a pound or two after eating out just once! Yikes!
A 2000 calorie entree plus a 1500 calorie dessert = exactly enough calories to add a pound of fat.

I'm stayin' home.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2009 at 2:14PM
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I remember when I first started journaling my points/foods, I almost fainted when I saw a Schlotzky's Deli original turkey oven-toasted sandwich (small!) was 13 points! I used to get those quite often, thinking if it was turkey, it had to be healthy......?!!

    Bookmark   June 3, 2009 at 4:50PM
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ooohhhhhh... Now I am thinking what to do with the Starbucks gift card I got from my Project Manager as an appreciation of my work in the recent project.

Guess, I can buy fruits from the Starbucks. Don't they have fruits in there ???;-)))))

    Bookmark   June 4, 2009 at 3:52PM
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My early WW days are the reason I have not eaten a donut in years.
1) who eats just one donut?
2) just can't justify the empty calories/fat!!!

    Bookmark   June 4, 2009 at 5:23PM
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LOL Wodka! I would order salads all the time. Then I found out the salads were more rich in calories than the "good" stuff! Same with muffins. I read somewhere to think of muffins as cupcakes without the frosting.

Jasmi, yes, they have fruit. And coffee mugs. If you know people who like Starbucks you could buy them brand stuff or coffee (tho' it's cheaper at Walmart).

Or you could stick it in the stocking of someone you don't like (ha ha!), it's worse than coal!

    Bookmark   June 4, 2009 at 11:26PM
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silversword~ Thanks for posting this. It's a good and interesting read.

I think people sometimes know that these foods are LOADED with calories, carbs, and fat, but "See No Evil" takes over when taste buds, cravings, and will power are involved.

Having the CALORIES put IN YOUR FACE -- labeled on each portion, puts the rubber to the road and makes one decide whether the worth the "price."

And, for me, it's the accountability of ordering something like that when you're with a friend!!!! lol.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2009 at 2:47PM
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I am big coffee fan but try my best not to get addicted to it. Infact I have n't had a starbucks coffee in a while. Once I get back to my mini goal 139 ( I have been stcuk at 140.8 for almost 3 weeks now), I will make a trip to get a low calorie starbucks coffee.
Anyway, thanks for the post. I liked the idea of posting calories with the food. I hope they start implementing this kind of food laws in Southern california too.:-))))

    Bookmark   June 5, 2009 at 3:13PM
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