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New FDA Rules Now Require Calorie Counts on Menus


Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provided yet another reason to think twice about calories when you eat out: Starting in 2015, restaurants, movie theaters and other food retailers must display calorie information for the food items they are selling.

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This is big news considering Americans consume about a third of their daily calories (not to mention about half of every food dollar) away from home, where it's typically harder to cut calories than when making food at home.

[Read More: 10 High-Calorie Restaurant Salads]

The new rules, which are part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, cover more ground than initially proposed. All chain retailers with 20 or more locations are affected by these new rules. Calorie counts will also be coming to vending machine operators with 20 or more machines.

Where will you see calorie counts listed?
In addition to restaurants, drive-thrus and movie theaters, calorie counts will appear in grocery stores, amusement parks, coffee shops, pizza parlors and convenience stores. That means you'll finally be confronted head-on with the potential damage from those tubs of buttered popcorn.

Here are more examples of where you'll see calorie counts:
* Made-to-order sandwiches and other foods ordered from a menu or menu board at grocery stores and delis
* Self-serve food from the salad or hot food bar at restaurants and grocery stores
* Bakeries and coffee shops
* Ice cream shops

When will you see these changes?
Some restaurants are already voluntarily providing this information, however qualifying businesses have a year to comply. Technically, the rules were published on December 1, 2014, which means calories need to be posted before December 2015. Vending machines operators have two years, so they have until December 2016 to post calories.

Who's for it? Who's against it?
The grocery industry opposes the new rules, which is surprising given the retail trend to focus on health and wellness, with many even hiring registered dietitians to lead the way. There's also opposition from vending and pizza industry groups.

Naturally, the rules are earning strong support from groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

[Read More: Is “Coffee Hacking” a Bad Idea?]

Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., RD, of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute says, "I'm 100 percent in favor of the new FDA labeling rules. While time will tell if this initiative will actually reduce the number of obese individuals in the United States, they will for sure heighten awareness of just how many calories (and huge portions) are consumed when we choose to consume meals and snacks away from home."

Kirkpatrick notes that while this is a great step to help us all be more aware, we have to begin looking beyond calories as well. While calories are important, numbers that assess sugar, sodium and saturated fat are just as critical. "One step at a time," she says, "and this is a great first step."

There's good news in the rules for those who are hungry for more nutrition information. If a business qualifies to post calories to their menu, then it's also obligated to provide certain nutrition information upon request.

[Read More: Why Just Eating Healthy Won’t Guarantee Weight Loss]

It's much of the same information you'd see on a packaged food label: calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs, fiber, sugars and protein.

But what does this mean for businesses? Matthew Reischer, a New York legal and policy analyst, believes businesses will be forced to respond to the market demands of consumers who make decisions based on caloric and health considerations. "Businesses that fail to respond to these market demands will lose market share."

Are calorie counts on a menu board the answer to curing obesity? Not likely. But detractors who rely on that argument are missing the point. Proponents know that making healthy food choices within our current food environment is a complex endeavor. Supporters are simply in favor of providing easier access to key information at the point of purchase.

Information is power when it comes to proper nutrition and healthy eating patterns, according to Angela Lemond, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Though she notes, "Ongoing nutrition guidance must take place so people can know how to use that information."

– Maggie

Readers - Do you think posting calorie counts on menus will make you think twice about what you order? Does the public health value outweigh the cost to businesses? Do you think restaurants will adjust portions to reach more attractive calorie counts? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Maggie Moon, M.S., RD, is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian. She recently authored a book on food sensitivities, "The Elimination Diet Workbook," continues to contribute to healthy living media as a writer and an expert source, and provides nutrition counseling.

Previously, she led health and wellness initiatives for America's leading profitable online grocer, FreshDirect.com, where she spearheaded a budget-friendly healthy living campaign, revamped the gluten-free department, developed the sustainable seafood program, and secured company-wide participation in the National Salt Reduction Initiative.

As an educator, Maggie was an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College in the City of New York, in both undergraduate and graduate programs. She also developed and implemented nutrition curricula for NYC public schools. 

She holds a BA in English Literature from UC Berkeley and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Education from Columbia University. She completed her clinical training at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia and Cornell; and has community training from United Way of NYC, Columbia Head Start, and the Healthy Schools, Healthy Families program of the Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian. The common thread throughout her diverse career is her focus on health promotion in the interest of disease prevention for improved public health.

Connect with her at maggiemoon.com and on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.




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