Want A Calorie Count With That? FDA Issues New Rules For Restaurants

Nov 25, 2014
Originally published on November 25, 2014 4:33 pm

Soon, you may not be able to ignore how many calories are in the breakfast sandwich or doughnut you like to stop for in the morning.

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday will release new rules that will require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to begin posting calorie information on their menus.

"Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home, and people today expect clear information about the products they consume," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in a statement.

The labeling rules will take effect a year from now. They will apply not only to menus and menu boards at sit-down and fast-food restaurants, but also to other retail food establishments with 20 or more locations, such as convenience stores and movie theaters. Even some prepared foods sold in supermarkets will be covered.

"The new rules around menu labeling are terrific," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Pizza chains had argued that it would be tough to comply with calorie labeling, given all the possible topping combinations, so they are being given the flexibility to post calorie information by the slice rather than the whole pie. And, yes, the pizza chains will be required to include calorie counts on menus posted for online ordering as well.

Wootan has been pushing for calorie labeling for a decade. With Americans spending 50 cents of every food dollar on foods prepared outside the home, she says, the FDA had to expand its calorie-posting requirements beyond restaurants — even vending machines are included.

"Once this [vending machine] provision goes into effect, people will be able to see outside the machine how many calories are in each vended item," Wootan notes.

Calorie labeling became required by law in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, but implementation has been delayed for several years. The idea is that, with calorie information in full view, people will pay attention and order healthier options. But does it work?

Sara Bleich, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that numerous studies have looked at the effectiveness of calorie labeling on menus in cities like New York, where such information is already required.

"In general, the studies show when you put calories on menu boards, only about 30 percent of consumers notice them," she says.

But for those who do read those posted calorie counts, it can be a wake-up call.

"I was like, I can't believe I've been eating Rice Krispies bars so long," says Jackie Breuer, a college student living in Washington, D.C.

Breuer liked to stock up on the treats at Starbucks, which started posting calories nationwide last year. But when she realized that the bars, which looked so light, contained hundreds of calories, it made her think twice. Same thing with sweet coffee drinks, she says.

"I don't go for Frappuccinos — those are half a day of calories," she says. "Calorie counts really make you change your mind about things."

A draft of the new calorie-labeling regulation has been on the table for a couple of years. In the meantime, many chains have rolled out lower-calorie alternatives to menu items, and introduced new ones.

In fact, Johns Hopkins' Bleich recently published a study that found that during 2013, new menu items from chains contained about 60 fewer calories compared with things that were already on the menu.

"Our thought is that this is reflecting voluntary changes in anticipation of the menu labeling law," Bleich says.

The National Restaurant Association issued a statement saying it strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers. With the new FDA regulation, the industry group says, diners around the country — from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine — "will have a new tool to help them make choices that are right for them."

Not everyone is happy with the rules. The American Pizza Community - a group comprised of large pizza companies, regional chains and franchise owners - says the labeling rules will be onerous for small business.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's about to get a lot harder to ignore all those calories in the fast-food breakfast specials, plus donuts maybe a lot of us stop for in the morning. Today, the Food and Drug Administration issues new rules mandating that chain restaurants nationwide post calorie information on their menus. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At a time when Americans eat and drink one-third of all of our calories away from home, it's about to get a lot easier to know just how many we're consuming. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says within one year, whether you hit the drive-thru, order off a paper menu or from the menu board at a chain restaurant, you will see calorie counts alongside menu items.

MARGARET HAMBURG: The step we're taking today to make calorie information available on menus is a really important one for public health.

AUBREY: The new rules will apply to all sorts of food establishments that have 20 or more locations, and it includes those who had tried to wiggle out of regulation. For instance, pizza makers, who argued it would be too hard to comply, will have the option to list calories by the slice as opposed to a whole pie. And movie theater chains, notorious for serving up big buckets full of buttery popcorn, are on the hook for calorie posts, too. Public health advocate Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says she's been waiting for this moment.

MARGO WOOTAN: The new rules around menu labeling are terrific.

AUBREY: She's been pushing for calorie labeling for a decade. She says with Americans spending 50 cents of every food dollar on foods prepared outside our homes, the FDA had to expand beyond restaurants to convenience stores and even vending machines.

WOOTAN: Once this provision goes into effect, people will be able to see outside of the machine, how many calories in each vended item.

AUBREY: Now, the idea here is that with calories in full view, people will pay attention and start choosing better options. But does it work? Well, Sara Bleich, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says there've been a bunch of studies done in cities such as New York, which already has calorie-posting rules in place.

SARA BLEICH: In general, the studies show that when you put calories on menu boards, only about 30 percent of consumers actually notice them.

AUBREY: But for those who do, it can be a wake-up call.

JACKIE BREWER: Oh, yeah. I was, like, oh, my gosh. I cannot believe I've been eating those rice crispy bars for so long (laughter).

AUBREY: Jackie Brewer likes to make regular stops at Starbucks, which started posting calories nationwide last year. When she realized that the bars that looked so light were hundreds of calories, it made her think twice and same with the sweet coffee drinks.

BREWER: I don't go for the frappuccinos 'cause those are, like, a half-a-day's worth of calories. It really makes you change your mind about things.

AUBREY: She says, these days, she'll have a vanilla latte.

BREWER: They can get a skinny vanilla latte that tastes very similar to be, like, a third of the calories. I find that really interesting.

AUBREY: A draft of the new calorie regulation has been on the table for a couple of years, so many chains have already started playing up lower-calorie alternatives and introducing new ones. In fact, Johns Hopkins' Sara Bleich recently published a study that found during 2013, new menu items introduced contained about 60 fewer calories compared to things that were already on the menu.

BLEICH: So our thought is that that is reflecting voluntary changes that restaurants are making in anticipation of this menu labeling law.

AUBREY: The National Restaurant Association says it strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers and that the FDA regulation means that, around the country, diners in restaurants will have a new tool to help them make choices that are right for them. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.