Mark Lennihan / AP

FDA to require calorie counts on menus across the US

The sweeping changes apply to chains with 20 or more locations, including prepared foods at grocery chains

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Tuesday issued sweeping rules requiring chain restaurants and movie theaters, as well as the prepared food counters at some grocery stores, to post calorie counts on their menus, an effort which the government and advocates hope will be a boon for public health efforts.

The rules apply to restaurant chains with 20 or more locations, including both sit-down and drive-through fast-food restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, takeout and delivery foods like pizza and foods sold at “places of entertainment” such as movie theaters.

The rules, which take effect in one year, are aimed at providing customers with consistent information about what they’re eating and drinking outside of the home and are intended to curtail the rapidly expanding waistlines of a nation where more than one-third of adults are obese.

The calorie count rules will also apply to vending machines if their owners operate 20 or more and will take effect in two years.

“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home,” Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, told reporters. “These final rules will give consumers more information when they are dining out and help them lead healthier lives.”

The FDA is calling for the calorie counts to be clearly displayed on menus in type that’s no smaller than the food or drink item listing itself. Menus at chains are also required to post a reminder that “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

A portion of the 2010 Affordable Care Act called for calorie counts to be posted on the menus of chain restaurants with 20 or more locations, which was followed by guidance issued by the FDA — but that counsel was put on hold for years as some food industry groups fought over the regulations.

Large pizza chains, for example, argued that their calorie information ought to be displayed by the slice rather than by the whole pie, a concession the FDA granted.

And the Arlington, Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI) argued that grocery stores should not be “pulled into a labeling law and regulation designated for a different industry.” It argued that labeling calorie counts for prepared foods would “redirect hundreds of millions of dollars away from grocers’ efforts toward expansion of their offerings of fresh, minimally processed, locally produced items,” according to a statement from FMI president and chief executive officer Leslie G. Sarasin.

But the restaurant industry has largely supported the FDA’s requirements, with large national chains such as Dunkin Donuts, IHOP, Olive Garden, Chili’s and McDonald’s backing the calorie counts.

Panera Bread was the first national chain to voluntarily post calorie counts on its menus in 2010, but other chains such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Le Pain Quotidien soon followed suit.

Some U.S. cities and states – including New York City, Philadelphia and California – have also introduced similar chain restaurant calorie count requirements.

“Menu labeling is the biggest advance in providing nutrition information to consumers since the law that required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged food was implemented 20 years ago,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest – which has fought for calorie counts on menus for a decade – in a release. “It will soon seem strange that once it was possible to go into a Chick-fil-A or a Denny’s and not see calories on menus and menu boards.”

There is conflicting evidence as to whether calorie counts encourage consumers to make healthier choices. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of American Public Health, researchers gave diners information on recommended calorie consumption before they ate at two different New York City McDonald’s restaurants, both before and after the city started requiring calorie counts to be posted. The researchers found that the calorie information did not significantly alter consumers' dining choices.

But in a 2011 study published in the American Economic Journal, researchers analyzed transaction data provided by Starbucks locations in New York, Boston and Philadelphia from January 2008 to February 2009, which included people’s purchases both before and after the New York City locations started posting calorie counts in April of 2008. The researchers found that posting calorie counts led to a 6 percent reduction in calories purchased in each transaction.

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