Battle Over Calorie Counts Moves Beyond Restaurants

Public health advocates say Americans want to know how much they're eating.

Nathan's Famous Frankfurters in New York is ahead of the curve, even posting calories for the beers they sell. (Photo: Kai Brinker/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

With the reelection of President Obama and the healthcare overhaul moving full steam ahead, the big focus right now may be on which states will pony up and create their own insurance exchanges. But for the food-service industry, another question looms: Just how far will the feds go in requiring eateries to post calorie counts for what they serve?

Notice I said “eateries,” not “restaurants.” That’s a given. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires chain establishments with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for their menu items where customers can see them (so no more hunting for those ketchup-splattered brochures wedged behind the soda fountains). McDonald’s made big news in September by getting a jump on it.

Beyond that, though, the law itself is vague, requiring “similar” retail food establishments to also post calorie counts. But what does “similar” mean?

Americans consume an estimated one-third of their calories outside the home, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a trend that’s been growing steadily over the past 40 years (along with our waistlines). And those calories don’t just come from restaurants. You’ve got everything from your movie theater popcorn to your lunchtime salad cobbled together at the salad bar of your local grocery store.

At first the Food & Drug Administration, which is responsible for creating the labeling regulations mandated by the healthcare law, proposed requiring a slew of establishments to post calorie counts, everywhere from the aforementioned grocery stores and movie theaters to convenience stores, cafeterias, bakeries, etc.

Makes sense, right? Why should Pizza Hut have to post calories for what’s on its salad bar, but not Whole Foods?

You’d think conservatives in Congress would agree. After all, that’s exactly the sort of “bureaucratic” inconsistency in federal regulation that they seem to seize upon like a dog on a bone.

But no. To wit, last summer lawmakers, led by Rep. John Carter (R–TX), put forth the so-called “Common Sense Nutrition Act,” aimed at scaling back the requirements. No doubt resorting to hyperbole, Carter proclaimed in the Los Angeles Times, “The rules the government now seeks to impose on pizza alone would force these guys to wallpaper their stores with calorie information on every possible combination of toppings, while the majority of their customers order delivery over the phone and never come in—and that’s crazy.’’

It’s really not, counters CSPI, at least when it comes to supermarkets and convenience stores. The advocacy group recently released a report that found those establishments, despite their stringent opposition, should have no trouble fulfilling the law’s requirements: 81 percent of retailers surveyed by the group already have nutrition information available for some of their prepared foods, while 78 percent of supermarkets have registered dieticians on staff who could calculate calories for the rest.

Why all this fuss over putting some numbers on a menu board? Well, at least according to CSPI, those numbers do have an impact. “A study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that 1 in 6 customers used the calorie information at chain restaurants and purchased 100 fewer calories than customers who did not see or use the calorie information,” CPSI reports. It also notes that in areas of the country where local labeling requirements already exist, such as Seattle, eateries have reformulated a number of their products to include fewer calories.

“People not only want nutrition information,” says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at CSPI, citing the 81 percent of Americans who say they want supermarkets to provide calorie counts. “They need it.”

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