The Food and Drug Administration is releasing long-awaited rules on calorie labeling this week that will give Americans more information about the food they’re purchasing. Public health advocates are praising the regulations for going even further than they expected — requiring public calorie counts for movie theaters and vending machines in addition to chain restaurants.
“This is one of the most important public health nutrition policies ever to be passed nationally,” Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that has been pressuring the agency to reform its food labeling practices for years, told the New York Times. “Right now, you are totally guessing at what you are getting. This rule will change that.”
National calorie labeling is one of the lesser known provisions in the Affordable Care Act, which required the FDA to come up with new rules for menus at chain restaurants. But it’s been a slow process. The agency has been working on the guidelines for more than three years, and has missed several self-imposed deadlines.
That’s partly because the policy change has been hampered by pushback from the food and entertainment industries, which have fought hard to avoid further regulation. Last year, the FDA acknowledged that the issue had gotten “extremely thorny” thanks to competing special interests. For instance, after movie theaters resisted the impending requirement to label the calories on their popcorn, the Obama administration indicated it would find a loophole for that sector.
So experts are pleasantly surprised that the new calorie labeling regulations, which will go into effect next fall, are more expansive than they expected. Convenience stores, prepared food in supermarkets, vending machines, pizza delivery services, movie theaters, and alcoholic beverages in restaurants are all included.
“It’s much tougher than the original,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public health professor at New York University, told the New York Times. “I’m amazed. It never occurred to me that alcohol would make it in.”
Public health experts are hopeful that menu labeling will give people more resources to make healthier choices, particularly since Americans are getting about a third of their calories outside the home. The average American spends nearly half of their food dollars on prepared meals and eats restaurant food about 5.8 times per week.
Even if customers themselves won’t necessarily choose a lower-calorie option if they know how unhealthy their cheeseburger is — research indicates that only about 30 percent of people pay attention to public calorie counts — there’s some evidence that menu changes could influence food vendors themselves. One recent study found that restaurants are already lowering their calorie count and portion sizes in anticipation of having to post nutrition information. They want to communicate to their customers that they offer healthy options.
Some chain restaurants, including Panera and Starbucks, have already voluntarily implemented calorie labeling. Others have more forcefully resisted the policy. Delivery pizza places — led by Domino’s, whose conservative owner has made his distaste for the Affordable Care Act very clear — have argued that there are so many possible combinations of pizza toppings that Obamacare will force them “to post up to 34 million different signs in every store.” The FDA is compromising by allowing pizza parlors to post calorie information by the slice or by the pie.