Diners in North Carolina soon will see what customers in Philadelphia, Albany, N.Y., and Seattle know just by looking at restaurant menus - that Olive Garden's eggplant parmigiana has 1,220 calories, a Krispy Kreme glazed has 200, and Hardee's Six Dollar Thickburger has 930.
Chain restaurants and vending machines nationwide will need to begin posting calorie information, a requirement included in the federal health insurance law passed this year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to release proposed menu labeling rules by March, with implementation sometime after that.
Some local chains are already posting the information, anticipating the new rules.
Proponents see the labeling as a weapon against obesity as customers armed with calorie information make choices while they're at a restaurant table or standing at a cash register. Americans get about one-third of their calories from food prepared outside the home, according to the FDA.
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With an increasing number of cities, counties and states requiring calorie information on menus, the National Restaurant Association endorsed a national law as a way to set a single standard. North Carolina does not have its own law.
The labeling increases costs and hassles for restaurant owners, association spokesman Michael Donohue said. It's too soon to put a price on the changes, Donohue said, but Congress took cost into account when it decided the requirement should apply only to chains with more than 20 locations.
Just as companies decided to change their recipes when the FDA required transfat labels, calorie labels could spur restaurants to change the way they prepare food to lower calories counts, said Alice Ammerman, professor in the nutrition department at UNC-Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health.
But it's not clear whether the labels change what people eat. Other cities and states have had menu labeling for a few years, and early studies conflict on whether it influences customers' choices.
A study by New York University and Yale University of fast-food restaurants in low-income New York neighborhoods with high rates of obesity concluded that the information didn't change what customers ordered, while a later study by the city's health department said it did, with 56 percent of customers noticing the labels.
Panera Bread started putting calorie counts on its menus this year, and the company didn't see any changes in customer preferences when the menu displays were tested in other markets, said Josie Franzetta, marketing director for Breadwinners at the Triangle, which has 11 Panera Bread restaurants in the Triangle.
"Sales didn't drop off," Franzetta said. "The menu mix didn't change."
Only one of eight customers leaving the Panera Bread on Six Forks Avenue saw the labels.
As she left Panera Bread, Jenny Yanchuleff said she noticed the calorie information, but it didn't influence her choices because she went specifically for the mac and cheese. But she's used to seeing the labels in New York, and while she was at a Starbucks there decided to order a cookie rather than a brownie because the cookie had fewer calories.
The remodeled Golden Corral on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, the chain's new prototype restaurant, prints calorie information in small type at the bottom of cards identifying buffet choices, along with information on serving size, fat, protein and carbohydrates. On a recent weekday, the nutrition information escaped notice of eight Golden Corral customers and even one employee.
Chris Kuehn, Golden Corral's marketing chief, said since labeling was coming, the company wanted to try it out in its prototype. Golden Corral will wait until the federal regulations are final before it adds nutrition information in restaurants where it isn't already mandated, he said.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said more people will notice the labels when the nationwide requirement kicks in.
Labeling doesn't stop people from eating out, Wootan said, but it lets them know, for example, whether a roast beef sandwich has fewer calories than a tuna sandwich.
"A majority of Americans are interested in nutrition and want to eat better," she said.