Calorie Counts…Someday

As we noted in a Diabetes Flashpoints piece a few months ago[1], the health-care reform act that President Obama signed into law in March contained numerous grants and programs targeted toward preventive health. One of these provisions requires chain restaurants with 20 or more branches to display the calorie content of menu items, as well as to provide brochures with more detailed nutrition information upon request. A handful of states and municipalities, notably New York City[2] and California[3], already had laws in place mandating such labeling (although California’s rules have yet to go into full effect). According to a PBS NewsHour article[4] from earlier this year, the hassle of a growing hodgepodge of local rules motivated the National Restaurant Association to support the provision, making it uncontroversial and widely unknown until the law was passed.

As the NewsHour article notes, however, the provision does not contain a deadline by which restaurants must post calorie information. Instead, it gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a year from the bill’s passage to draft guidelines for implementing the new policy. This means it could be years until the policy actually goes into effect. While some chain restaurants have already added calorie information to their menus — including IHOP and Applebee’s parent company DineEquity, according to a recent Reuters article[5] — many are reluctant to do so and are waiting until the FDA’s rules go into effect.


By requiring chain restaurants to display the caloric content of menu items, the new rules aim to guide consumers to healthier choices — without forcing them to do so — with the hoped-for result of healthier citizens and lower health-care costs. But it is unclear, based on the experience of New York City, whether calorie-posting has this effect. As the NewsHour article notes, a study[6] published last year in the journal Health Affairs found that among 1,156 adults polled in poor New York City neighborhoods, only 27% said that calorie labeling affected their food choices, and the study found no effect from the labels on actual food consumption. However, a study by the New York City Department of Health that looked at a broader segment of the population — not just people in poor areas — found that people who said they took the new calorie postings into account consumed 106 fewer calories per order, on average, than did people who said they ignored the new information.

What do you think — should the FDA delay implementing the calorie-posting rule? If your community has such calorie-posting requirements already, do you find them helpful? If it does not, would you like to see this information on the menu? Should other nutrition information — such as fat, carbohydrate, or sodium content — be required on menus as well? Leave a comment below!

If you’d like to share your views with the FDA, the agency is currently seeking public input on how it should implement the calorie-posting requirement; click here[7] to contribute.

  1. piece a few months ago:
  2. New York City:
  3. California:
  4. article:
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