Moment of truth

A customer reviews the menu board at the Panera store in Brookline. In March, Panera announced it will become the first chain to post calories on menus nationally.

It will be awhile before consumers come face-to-face with the number of calories packed in those juicy burgers and greasy fries, but they won't be able to profess ignorance any more when it happens.

Opinions are mixed on the impact of the new federal law requiring chain restaurants with at least 20 locations to post calorie counts of their food. Enacted as part of health care reform, the rules are to be drafted by the Food and Drug Administration within the next year. They will supersede local laws in places such as New York and Philadelphia.

Anti-obesity advocates hope that forcing restaurants to reveal calorie counts will push diners to make better choices and coax the chains to offer healthier eating options.

Early studies do show some modest changes in consumer behavior in New York City, which enacted its pioneering calorie-posting law in 2008. But whether the measure also is pushing healthier items onto menus is less clear.

Tom Sponseller is CEO of the South Carolina Hospitality Association, the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association. He doesn't think the law will have any dent on America's obesity problem.

"Does anybody really pay attention? Probably no more than the cigarette smoker who's got a surgeon general's warning on every pack."

Sponseller points out that the National Restaurant Association supported the new regulations, mainly because they will make the law uniform and "a level playing field" for the industry, he said.

The law also protects smaller, independent operators and against lawsuits, he said.

"The good thing about it, as long as the restaurant is making a good faith effort to provide accurate data, they are held harmless on legal issues. That's important because, in the case of a Subway, you can get two or tens of different combinations. It makes it difficult to get an exact calorie count."

He said in South Carolina, the two main restaurant groups affected are Charleston-based Wild Wings and Fatz Cafe, whose corporate office is in Taylors, near Greenville.

Steve Bruce, president and CEO of Fatz Cafe, which has 47 locations in the South, said the law is not as simple as it sounds.

"We don't post the nutritional information (for menu items) but we do have a lot of requests for that information through our Web site, and we handle those requests individually. It's going to add to our cost of doing business."

He doesn't know exactly how expensive complying will be, but said a nutritional analysis costs between $150 and $300 per item. Printing a new menu runs $35,000.

Bruce said one of the challenges for Fatz Cafe versus fast-food restaurants is the greater number of variables.

"Fast food, they have a limited number of ingredients, a very specific weight, so it's very easy to tell someone what the nutritional value is. In casual dining, which we are ... we prepare things from scratch, we prepare things as you order them."

While chain restaurants have introduced scores of healthier menu items in recent years, most say the changes are coincidental to calorie-posting laws, an effort to keep pace with consumer demand for healthier items.

Bruce said Fatz Cafe has increased its number of grilled items, added more nutritional sides and offers smaller portions. But most diners aren't choosing them.

"We have healthy foods, we've introduced sugar-free items ... and they're always the absolute lowest sellers on the menus."

New York City's law has prompted some restaurants to make menu changes. Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery and restaurant chain with more than a dozen locations, made some of its pastries smaller to cut calories, for example.

"It forced us to innovate," said Olivier Arizzi, brand marketing manager. "We would have had certain pastries that were very popular before not being popular anymore because the calorie count would be so high."

"You hope the calorie posting is going to put pressure on the chain restaurants -- because they have to post those calories -- to reformulate and make small changes in what they offer," said Cathy Nonas, who directs the New York City health department's physical activity and nutrition programs. "And indeed, we're seeing that. Obviously not with everything, but there are changes in almost every restaurant."

Nonas is looking at menu offerings by chain restaurants before and after the city law took effect.

Among the changes she noticed since 2007: Dunkin' Donuts launched its lower-calorie DDSmart options, KFC began selling grilled chicken, Starbucks switched to lower-fat milk for espresso-based drinks and McDonald's cut its serving size for large french fries by 0.6 ounces.

Health policy analysts still are measuring the effect of the local laws, focusing mostly on how they influence consumer behavior.

Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that calorie postings in New York City Starbucks led to a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction.

Many public health researchers believe labeling laws will end up having at least some affect on fast-food formulations. One researcher noted that packaged food manufacturers reduced the amount of trans-fats in their products after being required to list the levels.

Beth Ann Holbrook, who works in marketing for Sticky Fingers, said the restaurant group won't be affected for now. The Charleston-based barbecue rib chain has 18 locations.

"It will be real interesting to see what happens," she said.

More customers have been asking for nutritional data in general, Holbrook said.

"Even allergen information. It runs the gamut how many allergen questions we get each day."

A similar calorie-count bill was introduced in the S.C. Legislature in January. The author, Rep. Ted Vick of Chesterfield, had lost 90 pounds mainly by holding his calories to between 1,500 and 1,700 a day, combined with exercise.

"My lifestyle traveling all the time for the Legislature and business, it's a pretty arduous task to know the calorie counts at these fast-food restaurants," Vick said. "I spent hours and hours online researching."

Vick believes people may think twice when they see the numbers, like he did.

"I would get a milkshake after dinner, and a milkshake has 1,200 calories. I would consume it as an afterthought."

Said Sponseller, "At the end of the day ... if that's successful for anybody else, the calorie counts are worthwhile."

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at Associated Press contributed to this report.