Thursday, September 17, 2009

Counting on Calories to Fatten Government Coffers

Today's Wall Street Journal tucked away some news that ought to leave every aspiring gastronome aghast. A piece about how Brad Blum, the new CEO of the Macaroni Grill restaurant chain, plans to beef up the eatery's image, discussed the slimming down of its cuisine, in response to ribbing in magazines and on TV talk shows. It tells how he re-formulated recipes to skim the fat, and created less-dense options, dumping its dessert ravioli, dubbed by Men's Health magazine "the worst dessert in America," and re-constituting the chicken-artichoke sandwich The Today Show proclaimed "the calorie equivalent of 16 Fudgsicles."
The shocking news, however, was this:  "A federal bill currently before Congress and similar to a California law that takes effect in 2011, will require restaurants with at least 20 outlets to detail calorie counts on its menus."

 It's one thing to voluntarily pare down the butter so lovingly lauded by Julia Child, and brought as an offering in the hit film "Julie and Julia." Heaven knows that Americans are fodder in the ongoing battle between advertisers' pressures toward the high life, and obesity.  But the way to ruin restaurants' business across this country, and spoil the sensual pleasures of dining out is to place the number of calories in each dish next to its description on the menu.
Here is an entry from the Antipasti section of an actual menu of Macaroni Grill:
Shrimp & Artichoke Dip
Shrimp, artichokes and spinach baked together and bubbling with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. Served with Parmesan bread crisps.  $8.49
           Chef's Recommended Wine: Pinot Grigio - Lumina (Italy)

or, under Insalata, how about Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

Parmesan-breaded chicken breast, bacon, feta cheese, Roma tomatoes and mixed greens with Parmesan peppercorn ranch dressing.  $9.99
      Chef's Recommended Wine: Pinot Noir - La Crema (CA)

Sound good? (OK, not if you're kosher...) But imagine reading those offerings, lusting after the flavors, craving the acidity of the wine against their smoothness...and then reading that each dish is 859 calories per serving. (I made that up, but it's not out of the ball park).  Puts a damper on your enthusiasm, doesn't it?

Let's say you ignore the calorie count. You don't go out to eat all that often, do you?  But as you're about to dig into those fragrant bubbling cheeses, your dinner partner mumbles, "I was thinking of getting that, but it goes straight to my hips."  Suddenly each of those 859 calories tastes like a grain of sand in your mouth.

If you see the calories of your appetizer, entree and drink, you'll be tempted to use that handy calculator in your cell phone to find the total is...a football player's allotment for a week.  So, you'll skip the appetizer and drink, and certainly the dessert, slicing your eat-out experience.  Barely worth the gas to get there.

Indeed, listing dishes' nutritional content does retard restaurant purchases, the article suggests.  Ruby Tuesday printed healthy entries' stats on the menus of its 901 outlets and suffered "a dramatic drop in same-store sales."  The info was soon removed.

But not for long, under the law now before Congress. Talk about federal meddling.  But then again, with Obama's health insurance plan, perhaps there is a taxpayer stake (steak?) in keeping everyone fit.  Once calories are posted, it won't be long until an upper limit-per-serving is imposed on restauranteurs.  And of course a "fat tax" makes sense for those whose meals consist of, say, 1,200 calories or more, since we all pay for obesity's effects.  Another possibility is to weigh each taxpayer, charging a progressive tax that increases with BMI.
After all, government knows best, and due to our individual decadence and incompetence, must step in where consumers only waddle.  Capitalism be damned, lest our arteries be dammed.  As 2011 approaches, we'll soon see the reactions of Californians to the sight of "nutrition facts" cluttering menus.  I daresay even the Nanny State can't get us to eat our brussels sprouts.


  1. Would it be nice to have calories on the menu (or at least handy). Probably. Is that the government's job. Of course not.
    I remember doing Weight Watchers years ago, and our leader called Outback to find out the best options when eating there. They basically told her that she shouldn't be eating there if she cared about calories. Their food is so good, because they brush everything (EVERYTHING) they grill with butter.

  2. Isn't the solution to eat smaller portions, not to NOT eat delicious, fattening, filling foods? The French have that one right, and everyone reads books about that and nods their heads, but why can't restaurants DO something about it? Of course you can't legislate it, but that seems to be the biggest problem if toi asks moi. Kisses~

  3. Oh, heck, you grammar stickler. Nods his (or her) silly head.

  4. I agree with ChildsPlay that this is not the government's job but it looks like calorie-posting mandates are coming like it or not.

    Supplying nutrition information can increase sales when done right, but it should be only for select healthy items and they should then be promoted to the health conscious.

    In any case, healthy dining and good taste aren't mutually exclusive if the chef is both talented and health conscious. Check out Stephen Ollard from CoCo's cafe on

    Chris McNeil, founder

  5. There is another problem with posting the calorie counts on the menu. I noticed within the last year that fast food places now have calories posted. I can't go into Starbucks without my glasses.

  6. Childs, I disagree that it would be nice to have calories on the menu. Maybe a separate sheet that can be provided upon request?

    Mink: You're completely right: naturally thin people eat what they want when they want it and stop when they're satiated.

    Chris: Chefs should make the tastiest food; those who do that and are health-conscious will attract a following. Ollard seems to fit the bill, but the rah-rah health idea, I find, puts too much emphasis on analysis of what we eat, frankly, and this is what causes the "fat mentality" that gets people stuck in a push-pull with food.

    Pia: You need your glasses in any case to read the menu; ignore the calorie counts! PLEEEEEASE!