Walk into a restaurant these days and you might be able to check the calorie count of your enchilada, the salt content of your fries, the "heart healthy" status of your asiago peppercorn steak and — in at least one pioneering place — the carbon footprint of your vegetable lasagna.
Welcome to the era of the menu as a spreadsheet.
More restaurants, either by mandate or by choice, are bombarding diners with calorie counts and other information. It's a victory for health advocates who believe informed consumers will make better food choices, but the profusion of numbers makes one wonder: Is it possible to give diners too much information about their food?
"At some point, having too much information might actually hurt, because it may start to confuse," says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Popkin is one of the many advocates who supports current laws in New York City, Seattle and elsewhere that require chain restaurants to post calorie counts next to food listings. A similar nationwide requirement was approved as part of health care reform.
At least one city requires restaurants to divulge even more nutritional information. Philadelphia requires chain restaurants to list calories on menu boards, but sit-down chains with written menus must also include information on carbohydrates, sodium, saturated fats and trans fats.
People who study nutrition and psychology say the rule of thumb for making information useful is to keep it short and sweet — something a person looking up at a fast-food menu board can digest quickly.
Popkin said a good example of what to avoid are those "Nutrition Facts" labels on packaged foods that are packed with per-serving and daily recommended value information for the likes of fat and fiber. He said the labels are useful — to scientists.
Some chains have just simplified things on their own. "Nothing over 500 calories," says the menu at Energy Kitchen, a health-conscious chain in the New York City area that features burgers and wraps. Seasons 52, a chain operating in seven states, advertises that all the items on its menu — from the shrimp cocktail to the grilled rack of lamb — are under 475 calories. Applebee's promotes its under-550 calorie picks with a little green apple graphic.
Experts like the simple calories-only approach, but they say it's not a perfect system.
Calorie counts are of limited use to someone who doesn't know how many calories they're supposed to eat a day, says Doug Nelson, director of the Avery Foodservice Research Laboratory at Purdue University. It might be more useful to tell diners that a brownie sundae with 850 calories represents more than a third the daily intake recommended for most adults.
A second problem is the "halo effect," which could lead people to believe that something with low calories is good for them generally. For instance, someone counting calories might consider a lower-calorie chicken and bacon ranch salad a great choice without noticing that its salt count is off the scale.