Two pieces of legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly would make it much easier for the state’s restaurant patrons to manage their weight and avoid heart disease.

The first, sponsored by Senator David Harrington (D-47) and Delegate Doyle Niemann (D-47) would require calorie counts on fast-food chains’ menu boards, and expanded nutrition information on chain restaurants’ printed menus. The second, introduced by Delegate James Hubbard (D-23A), would require all restaurants to phase out their use of partially hydrogenated oil, the source of artery-clogging artificial trans fat.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee will hold a hearing on both measures this afternoon. Both are strongly supported by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has helped New York City, the state of California, and other jurisdictions adopt similar menu labeling and trans fat requirements.

The menu labeling bill, HB 601, would require calories on menu boards used by fast-food chains, and calories, saturated plus trans fat, carbohydrates, and sodium on printed menus at sit-down chain restaurants with at least 15 outlets.

“Customers need calorie information at the point-of-ordering to make informed decisions,” says Michelle Forman, government affairs manager at CSPI. “How else would one know that a plain bagel without cream cheese at Dunkin’ Donuts has 120 more calories than a jelly-filled donut? Or that a large chocolate shake at McDonald’s has more calories than three hamburgers?”

“This bill doesn’t force anyone to do anything; it just makes sure that they know the price associated with what they do,” Niemann says. “Just as no one would seriously think it wise to hide the dollar cost of a menu item, it is hard to imagine a reason to hide the nutritional price for the same item.”

Americans eat out twice as often as in 1970 and obtain a third of their calories from restaurant meals. Studies also link dining out to higher caloric intakes and overall body weights. Children, for example, eat significantly more calories from a typical restaurant meal than one at home—770 versus 420 calories. Posting nutrition information on menus and menu boards will promote healthier eating and encourage restaurants to compete on the basis of nutrition, according to CSPI.

“Menu labeling will give Marylanders the information necessary to make smart choices,” Harrington says. “Websites, posters, and tray liners are just not working, so restaurants need to post nutrition information right on the menu where people can see and use it. It is just common sense.”

Delegate Hubbard’s legislation, HB 567, would phase out artificial trans fat in all Maryland restaurants by October 2010. The city of Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., have already passed curbs on artificial trans fat.

Artificial trans fat is increasingly hard to find in supermarket foods, where labeling requirements have encouraged most manufacturers to switch to healthier natural fats. Though most national chains have already gotten rid of it or are on the verge of doing so, many holdouts—especially among small and mid-size restaurants—remain. Trans fat is uniquely harmful because it raises one’s LDL “bad” cholesterol that promotes heart disease and simultaneously lowers one’s HDL “good” cholesterol that guards against it.

“Partially hydrogenated oil belongs in history books, not cook books,” says CSPI deputy director for health promotion Julie Greenstein. “Getting rid of it is an inexpensive and easy way for state, or for that matter, federal legislators to prevent heart attacks and hold down medical costs. As we’ve seen in Montgomery County, no one misses it once it’s gone.”

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