Calorie Counts, At Last

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Restaurant Calorie Counts

For years, public health officials have promoted calorie counts on restaurant menus as a way to empower consumers to make healthier food choices. Beginning several years ago, several local and state governments — most prominently New York City and California — started requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. Then, in 2010, the Affordable Care Act was passed into law. That law contained a provision requiring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement a rule requiring all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations in the United States to post calorie counts on their menus, as well as to have detailed nutrition information available in print to customers upon request.

But as we noted here at Diabetes Flashpoints back in 2010 — in a post called “Calorie Counts…Someday” — the health law gave no deadline by which restaurants had to post calorie counts or make other nutrition information available. Instead, it simply gave the FDA a year to create a plan for implementing such a rule, with no deadline by which the rule had to be in effect. As a result, nearly five years have passed since the Affordable Care Act became law, and in many states and cities, calorie counts are still nowhere to be seen.

According to an article published last week in The Washington Times, however, the FDA has finally set a deadline for chain restaurants to comply with the law’s requirement. Starting in November 2015, those restaurants will have to post the calorie content of all items “clearly and conspicuously” on all menus, menu boards, and electronic displays. The same article reports the results of a poll conducted last month, which examined public opinion on nutrition information in restaurants. According to the national Associated Press–GfK poll, 56% of Americans favor requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. Furthermore, 54% favor requiring sit-down restaurants to offer calorie postings, as well. But only 49% of Americans favored making such postings mandatory at coffee shops, and 44% favored requiring them on vending machines and in movie theaters. In none of these cases, however, did a majority of Americans oppose requiring calorie counts — only about 10% were opposed in each case, with the remainder “neither in favor nor opposed.”

However, as the poll notes, calories aren’t the most important piece of nutrition information to most Americans. While 55% said that calorie content was very or extremely important to them in judging a food choice (the percentage was the same for sodium), 59% said the same about fat content and 61% said the same about sugar content of menu items. It is likely, then, that most Americans would prefer to see these numbers posted on menus alongside, or even instead of, calorie counts.

What’s your take on calorie counts on menus — is the FDA right or wrong to require chain restaurants to post them this fall? Should Congress have given the FDA the power to require other information — such as fat, sugar, or total carbohydrate content — to be posted on menus, as well? Do you think calorie counts will, or would, have any effect on what you order at restaurants? Would any other nutrition information have an effect on what you order, if it were featured prominently on the menu? Will you be requesting printed nutrition information from any restaurants, or have you done so already if it was available? Leave a comment below!

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