Diners will soon know how many calories are in that double cheeseburger at a chain restaurant, the tuna salad in the grocery store salad bar and even that oversized tub of buttery popcorn at the movie theater.
The Food and Drug Administration this week announced long-awaited calorie labeling rules, requiring establishments that sell prepared foods and have 20 or more locations to post the calorie content of food and beverages “clearly and conspicuously” on their menus, menu boards and displays. Companies have until a year from now to comply.
“Americans get about a third of their calories away from home, often consuming less nutritious food and underestimating the calories they eat,” FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.
Although listing calorie counts on menus won’t solve the obesity epidemic, it should help diners make healthy food choices, Dr. Hamburg added. “[P]eople today expect clear information about the products they consume,” she said.
“Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”
The FDA’s new rules, which are part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, set a national standard for restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets and will take precedence over the patchwork of state laws. The rules aim to close a gap in the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which established nutrition labeling on most foods, but not restaurant or other ready-to-eat foods.
What’s covered under the new rules
Under the rules, calories must be displayed on all menus and menu boards. Other nutritional information – including calories from fat, cholesterol, sugars and protein – must be made available in writing upon request.
The new calorie rule covers meals at sit-down restaurants, take-out food, bakery items, ice cream from an ice-cream store and pizza, which will be labeled by the slice and whole pie. Seasonal menu items, such as a Thanksgiving dinner, daily specials and standard condiments will be exempt.
The final rule, unlike a 2011 proposal, includes food and beverage items at movie theaters and amusement parks, and alcoholic beverages served in restaurants, but it doesn’t apply to drinks mixed or served at a bar.
Specifically, calories will have to be listed for:
- Popcorn purchased at a movie theater or amusement park
- Meals from sit-down restaurants
- Foods purchased at drive-through windows
- Take-out food, such as pizza
- Foods, such as made-to-order sandwiches, ordered from a menu or menu board at a chain grocery store or delicatessen
- Foods you serve yourself from a salad or hot food bar
- Muffins at a bakery or coffee shop
- A scoop of ice cream, milk shake or sundae from an ice cream store
- Hot dogs or frozen drinks prepared on site in a convenience or warehouse store
The rule does not apply to independent restaurants, bars or grocery stores, said Dr. Hamburg. “It also doesn’t apply to food trucks, ice cream trucks, food served on airplanes or other transportation vehicles,” she added.
Restaurants and similar retail food stores will have one year to comply with the rule, and vending machine companies will have two years to make the changes, the FDA said.
Looking beyond calories
To help the public put calorie counts into the context of a person’s daily caloric need, restaurants and vending machines will also have to display a sign saying: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”
Public health officials welcomed the new rules, citing past studies that show consumers tend to choose food items lower in fat and calories when they are presented with nutrition information.
However, it’s important to point out that focusing solely on calories can result in an inattention to the quality of food choices. Some high-calorie foods, such as nuts, are also rich in nutrients and should not be sworn off based on their calorie count.
In the future, public health advocates hope to see more comprehensive nutrition labels become more widely available in restaurants and other food vendors. Additionally, educating consumers on how to interpret and use nutrition information could help people make healthier, informed decisions about their diet.