Many restaurant chains in New York City will from next summer not only have to eliminate trans-fats from their menus but also display the calorie content of their menu items so that customers can clearly see how fattening the food really is. The ruling has its dissenters, as Monica Dobie found out.

Amidst claims that a new law could hit fastfood sales, the New York City Board of Health recently passed a by-law that requires restaurants that have already provided calorie counts of their food on websites or pamphlets or any other public form to display them clearly in the customer's view when they order food.

Health officials said it would apply to roughly 10% of the city's restaurants, mainly large chains that have highly standardised menus and portions.

Janine Paavola of the New Jersey-based Food Institute said restaurants will feel the change financially. "It will cost the restaurants money to change their menus.

"The brands will suffer because, quite honestly, people are going to think the food is cheap but it's also not healthy. So these restaurants are going to have to spend a lot of money re-marketing themselves to customers and maybe giving them more healthier options, but this costs money to do," she said.

Calorie amounts are to be posted in a size and typeface at least as large as the price or name of the menu item. These are the only guidelines given to restaurants and they are able to be "creative" in what the displays look like.

Health Commissioner Dr Thomas R. Frieden said this new law is in response to New Yorkers' ever expanding waistlines and the repercussions associated with being overweight. "Eating too many calories leads to weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. New Yorkers have this information available to them when they buy their groceries. Now we will be empowered to make more informed choices in restaurants as well," he said.

The Board said current voluntary attempts by fastfood chains to make nutrition information available are inadequate because the information is usually not displayed where consumers are making their choices and purchases.

Paavola added that although the displays are intended for people to make smarter choices, some poorer customers (who are statistically more likely to be obese) might ignore the new information: "It might be confusing for some customers who are often in the lower income demographic who want to look at a picture on the menu, order the food and leave. They don't want to be loaded down with all this information when they're ordering takeout food; it's cumbersome."

The law will take effect as of 1 July, 2007. Authorities will allow a grace period from 1 July to 1 October 2007, after which fines starting at US$200 will be handed out by inspectors.

Chicago's Alderman Edward M. Burke is rumoured to be disappointed at the fact that the Big Apple will be the first city to have such a law. It is following New York's lead with a similar proposal that includes a trans-fats ban and a calorie count requirement and this will more than likely come into affect before 2008.