F.D.A. to Require Calorie Count on Food and Drink Items

On Tuesday, Nov. 24, the Food and Drug Administration announced its new policies requiring businesses across the nation, including chain restaurants, movie theaters and pizza parlors, to post calorie counts for all items on their menus. The new rules were published in the government journal of the federal register.

According to the New York Times, health experts believe that these new requirements will decrease the country’s obesity rates by showing Americans just how many calories they are consuming. Being that approximately one third of Americans’ caloric intake comes from sources outside the home, this new information will have a significant impact on general public health.

A growing awareness of public obesity and nutritional issues has already prompted federal action. In 2006, New York began requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. Many other cities, counties and states followed with their own rules, as well as a handful of restaurants like Panera, McDonald’s and Au Bon Pain, prompting the National Restaurant Association negotiate with the consumer health advocates, according to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, about 18 states and cities have menu-labeling regulations in effect.  Consequently, menu labeling became law in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act.  Yet, the final rules proposed by the F.D.A. were delayed for three years, largely due to opposition from popular pizza and movie theater chains. Nationally, segments of the food industry continue to fight the regulations.

Major opposition of the menu-labeling policies comes from pizza chains and parlors. The New York Times explained that advocates of the policies worried that if pizza restaurants were allowed to provide calories per slice, they would divide pizzas into more slices.  Pizza companies also expressed the complications calculating calories for a food that is often customized by consumers.

The F.D.A.’s rules are extensive, covering items sold in vending machines and at amusement parks, as well as some pre-prepared foods like salads and sandwiches, in supermarkets. Additionally, the regulations apply to food establishments or chains that have or expend beyond 20 outlets: this includes both fast-food chains and sit-down restaurants. All drinks served in food establishments that are on menus and menu boards will be included, including alcoholic beverages.  However, mixed drinks ordered separately at a bar will not, the F.D.A. clarified.

With the inclusion of alcoholic items, these policies are more comprehensive and stricter than originally anticipated. Nevertheless, the policies will significantly impact the public’s understanding and response to health issues.

 “This is one of the most important public health nutrition policies ever to be passed nationally,” said Wootan. Noting the increasingly large portion sizes and unhealthy ingredients used in the food industry, she added, “Right now, you are totally guessing at what you are getting. This rule will change that.”

The new rules will take effect a year from now.  Before the policies are enacted, experts foresee legal and political challenges from areas of the food industry, mainly from grocery and convenience stores that sell prepared foods for takeout.

Whether menu labeling has any effect on obesity and health is still debatable. While some studies have shown no effect, others have. For now, advocates continue to praise the F.D.A.’s new rules, insisting upon their value as public education tools.