Nov. 25, 2014 -- The FDA announced new rules Tuesday that require chain restaurants and vending machine operators to post calories for food and drinks on their menus.
The rules, which have been in the works since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, apply to restaurants that have more than 20 locations nationwide.
“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home, and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD. “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 rules will also include labeling requirements for restaurant-style food in grocery stores, big-box stores, coffee shops, ice cream stores, movie theaters, and amusement parks.
“Restaurant-style foods include foods generally eaten on the premises, or while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location,” Hamburg says. That means foods intended to be eaten quickly for a meal, instead of those taken home to be eaten over time, like a loaf of bread or a pound of deli meat.
Restaurant chains won't be required to provide calorie counts for custom orders, daily specials, and seasonal items.
Many large chain restaurants, including Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, and McDonald's, have already started posting calorie counts in anticipation of these rules. New York City passed a law requiring calories on menus in 2009.
Consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest are applauding the regulations, but saying they are long overdue.
"Menu labeling is the biggest advance in providing nutrition information to consumers since the law that required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods was implemented 20 years ago," CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan says in a written statement. "It will soon seem strange that once it was possible to go into a Chick-fil-A or a Denny's and not see calories on menus and menu boards. We hope that small chains and independent restaurants provide the same information voluntarily.”
“The FDA did a terrific job in ensuring that a wide range of food-service establishments will provide calorie information to help their customers make informed choices,” Wootan tells WebMD. “It doesn’t matter to people’s health if they get that muffin at a grocery store, convenience store, a restaurant – it’s going to have the same impact on their waistline.”
The American Heart Association was among the health groups applauding the change.
“Calorie control is key to reversing the nation’s obesity epidemic,” the association said in a statement. “Thanks to these new FDA labeling rules, Americans will now have easier access to calorie counts for foods and drinks before they place an order or push the buttons on a vending machine.”
A Dash of Skepticism
Some researchers question how helpful simply printing calories will be.
“Generally, the research shows the impact of labeling on consumer behavior may not be that strong,” says Sara Bleich, PhD. She's a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Only about 30% of consumers notice them.”
But, she says, because the new rules are further-reaching than expected -- applying to things like popcorn at the movies and some alcoholic drinks -- the impact may be greater.
“Right now, the public has no idea how many calories are in food, and if you had people guess, most people will vastly underestimate the number,” she says.
For the rules to make a difference, she says, consumers who actually see the calorie numbers will need to learn what they mean in the context of their daily diet.
“To know what the calories mean, you have to know how many calories you need on a given day, and most people don’t know that,” Bleich says. “You have to put those numbers in the context of roughly a 2,000-calorie day.”
Examples might be more helpful to people than just raw numbers, she says. For instance, a 250-calorie cheeseburger may take 50 minutes of running to burn off, she says.
Hamburg says restaurant operators will be required to include this statement on menus: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”
Under the new rules, alcoholic drinks on menus will also have calories listed, Wootan says. “That’s important, because alcoholic drinks are the fifth-biggest source of calories in an American adult’s diet. A lot of times, people don’t think about the calories in what they drink as they do in what they eat, but calories matter whether you eat or drink them.”
Trade Groups React
The National Grocers Association, which represents grocery stores covered by the new rules, says the FDA is overreaching.
"The scope of the nutrition labeling provision as proposed by Congress was to provide a uniform standard for chain restaurant menu labeling, not grocery stores,” it said in a statement.
“Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law. We are disappointed that the FDA's final rules will capture grocery stores and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members. NGA will continue to work with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to address this regulatory overreach."
Restaurant operators and grocers with restaurant-style food offerings will have 1 year to comply with the new policy, and vending machine operators will have 2 years.
The National Restaurant Association, a trade organization representing the companies affected by the rules, welcomed the new regulations.
In a statement released Tuesday, CEO Dawn Sweeney said:
“Under the federal menu labeling regulations, which the Association sought and supported, nutrition information will soon be available in more than 200,000 restaurant locations nationwide.
"We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers.
"We look forward to working with the agency as the implementation period begins and toward helping the industry adjust to the new rules. We appreciate the diligence the FDA took in understanding the complexities of how this regulation will impact the restaurant industry and the patrons of restaurants all across the country.”
WebMD readers on Twitter and Facebook had mixed reactions to the new rules.
When asked if calorie counts printed on menus would make a difference in the way they make food decisions, Twitter user @MsCincy replied: “Absolutely! Some of the restaurants I go to already do that & that's how I decide what I am going to eat!”
But when asked the same question, Facebook user Patricia Wells DePover replied: “No. I order what I like & enjoy. If I'm going to count calories no reason to go out. Takes the enjoyment out of it.”