UChic Pop Rocks: The Big Calorie Count

In recent news: muffins have a lot of calories.

Here in New York, food chains like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Cosi and T.G.I. Friday’s have been posting the calorie counts of all their products since Spring 2008, and it hasn’t been pretty. The calorie reveal is part of a law that requires all food chains with 15 or more outlets nationwide to add calorie tags to all their food labels— in the same size font as the item name itself, no less.

Intended to curb diabetes and obesity, the law has been applied to fast food, sit-down chains and our much beloved Starbucks. (Who knew the fat-free chocolate chip banana bread was 390 calories??) Right away, store owners said they noticed a change in customer orders, as the punier cookies at Starbucks flew off the trays and T.G.I. Friday’s Classic Sirloin—a mere 290 calories!— became a new favorite. Many New Yorkers felt deceived: all these years, brownies labeled “low fat” were actually calorie-packed, and salads chock-full of vegetables turned out to also be chock-full of…. well, you get the point.

Most of us in NYC have gotten used to the calorie labels, either thinking twice about ordering that Caramel Macchiato with whip or going the opposite direction by deciding that calories won’t dictate the way we order. But a new issue has arisen: a local TV station has busted Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks for inaccurately labeling several menu items, including Starbucks’ pumpkin scone (not 500 calories but 539) and DD’s turkey-bacon-cheddar flatbread (not 360 but 460). It seems that the oversight for calorie-labeling is nearly non-existent, rendering the information pretty useless. NYC is fining the stores and, for at least a little while, New Yorkers will have to live without their pumpkin scones and turkey flatbreads while the chains redo their math.

Does the whole Big Brother-style calorie counting sound depressing? Maybe… but I appreciate the city looking out for reckless carb-loaders like myself. The issue is not a closed deal, though, as New York Governor David Patterson relishes his new role as legislator-cum-nutritionist: Patterson has proposed a 18% obesity tax on non-diet sodas. The tax is unlikely to be passed, but the proposal begs the question: just how far is too far?

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