Restaurants Shave Calories Off New Menu Items

Restaurants Shave Calories Off New Menu Items

12:22pm Oct 08, 2014
A sign displaying calorie counts is seen in a Subway restaurant in New York City in 2008. A yet-to-be-finalized federal rule requiring big chain restaurants to post calorie counts has likely led eateries to tweak their menus.
A sign displaying calorie counts is seen in a Subway restaurant in New York City in 2008. A yet-to-be-finalized federal rule requiring big chain restaurants to post calorie counts has likely led eateries to tweak their menus.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

Last month we reported that big food retailers have eliminated billions of calories from the packaged foods they sell in supermarkets.

Now comes a study that finds large U.S. restaurant chains are doing some calorie cutting as well. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health documented a decline of about 60 calories, on average, in new menu items in 2013, compared with calories in new menu items in 2012. This represents about a 12 percent drop in calories.

"It was not a surprise," says Sara Bleich, a health policy researcher at Johns Hopkins, who led the study.

Rules that require chain restaurants to post calories on their menus in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., have led to more calorie consciousness. And a federal rule that will expand calorie-posting nationwide as part of the Affordable Care Act — a rule that is expected to be finalized by the end of this year — has likely led companies to tweak their menus.

But Bleich notes this interesting finding: Food chains are not cutting calories from their signature dishes. In other words, burger chains are not downsizing their burgers. Instead, the cuts seem to be coming from newer items, such as salads and drinks.

The analysis, appearing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, included more than 19,000 menu items served in 66 of the nation's largest restaurant chains. The survey looked at fast-food chains like McDonald's and Arby's; fast-casual outlets like Panera and Chipotle; and traditional full-service dining options — think Outback Steakhouse, IHOP or P.F. Chang's.

Of course, there are always value-oriented customers looking for quantity over health consciousness. And, certainly, there are still a lot of calorie bombs on restaurant menus.

For instance, there's the 820-calorie tiramisu dessert at Maggiano's, or the 1,300-calorie fried lasagna at Olive Garden. Restaurant menus offer plenty of examples of such "Xtreme eats," as documented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest each year.

Now, eating 60 fewer calories may not sound like much of a reduction, but Bleich argues that it could make a difference. She notes that it's an excess of fewer than 200 calories a day that contributes to obesity. So given the frequency with which many Americans eat out, Bleich says, shaving 60 calories off of restaurant meals could lead to significant change over time.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hearing a love story like that calls for a little comfort food. Now, if you're a person who counts the calories of the food you eat, chain restaurants want to keep your business. They are tweaking their menus, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's been about six years since the city of New York started a campaign called Read 'Em Before You Eat 'Em, urging New Yorkers to take note of calories posted on menus. And as that's happened, there have been lots of surprises; who knew that a Starbucks scone packs more than 400 calories or a Johnny Rockets double burger can top 1,700 calories?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGIE KOVACS: It's definitely made me change habits.

AUBREY: That's Georgie Kovacs, who was interviewed by the New York City News Service when the calorie posting rule went into effect.

KOVACS: Not eliminating restaurants completely, but definitely when I go to them, the choices that I'm making for sure.

AUBREY: And restaurants seem to be responding to their newly calorie-conscious customers. A new study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds restaurant chains are cutting calories. Study author Sarah Bleich says their analysis compared thousands of menu items served at dozens of different chains in 2012 and 2013.

SARAH BLEICH: The newly introduced menu items have lower calories - about 60 lower on average, which is about a 12 percent decline.

AUBREY: So if you're a burger joint, you're not cutting calories from your signature menu items, say, a 550 calorie Big Mac. Instead chains are shaving calories from newer items, such as salads and drinks. Now, this may not sound like much, but Bleich argues it's an excess of fewer than 200 calories a day that contributes to obesity.

BLEICH: So if you can chip away at it by taking out about 60, that's noticeable and significant.

AUBREY: And as calorie counts start to appear on more menus nationwide, perhaps more of us will forego that 1,000-calorie pancake platter. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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