When Maine followed California in enacting legislation to place calorie counts on chain-restaurant menus, the goal was fostering smarter eating, as diners knew more about what they were ordering.

Nearly all of the emphasis was on the consumer, and how labeling would make them change, such as by foregoing anything nicknamed the “baconator” for a more sensible choice calorie-wise. There was some hand-wringing, though, about how labeling would make favored foods persona non grata.

There wasn’t much discussion about how labeling would affect restaurants, except the obvious — the upfront cost of actually putting labels on menus. This is a large part of the reason why labeling legislation, so far, has been confined to chain restaurants and their common menus.

The other reason is because chain restaurants are a chief target for health advocates, because their offerings are oft-blamed for Americans’ expanding waistlines.

New, but anecdotal, evidence from California about labeling is showing, though, the practice may affect restaurants more than diners, by forcing restaurants to reconsider the calorie counts of their popular meals, once the real figure is revealed to the public.

This was a twist for labeling advocates and opponents. For advocates, it provided evidence that restaurants could, if forced, provide healthier menu options with little trouble. (Or, in many cases, without even changing the option.)

For opponents, this took some wind from the notion that consumers would have to abandon their favorite foods because of calorie guilt. If restaurants can reduce the calorie counts of their menus, without even changing their menus, this would constitute a win-win for diners and eateries.

We’ll have to wait awhile before discovering if the story is the same in Maine. Menu labeling here, from a bit of apparent last-minute legislative horse-trading, was delayed until Feb. 1, 2011.

By then, it is possible that federal labeling laws will be on the books, as they’re now being discussed in Washington. There is seemingly support for it from restaurants, which may prefer the notion of one mandate than the possible hodge-podge of regulations from various states.

Regardless, labeling is coming. And if the end result is like California — making current menu items healthier, plus informing diners of their choices — this would be good news for Maine.

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