The first time I ever heard a calorie count for a restaurant menu item was about 20 years ago. I found out a Blooming Onion at Outback Steakhouse was 1,954 calories, with a whopping 154.71 grams of fat.
I remember being shocked. Really?!? It is just a vegetable… Anyhow- the restaurant was relatively new, I had a chance to recover myself, and I have never even looked at a Blooming Onion again.
Here’s the point: Calorie counts work for me.
Apparently it isn’t true for everyone, but a lot of us eat better if we know up front the nutritional cost of an item, particularly if we are ordering at a restaurant or fast food chain.
So I was pleased when the Affordable Care Act [ACA] made calorie counts mandatory for many businesses. Surely that couldn’t be as controversial as so many other parts of the law?
That was a naïve assumption on my part.
I want to give you a bit of information about what the law requires and outline both sides of the controversy, with some links (speaking of links-160 calories for two link sausages at IHOP) for you to study more as you want…
Publicly posted calorie counts have been recommended by the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Numerous municipalities (such as New York City) and states (such as California and New Jersey) have adopted similar measures. *
Along those lines, the Affordable Care Act amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require calorie and other nutrition labeling “for standard menu items offered for sale in a restaurant or similar retail food establishment that is part of a chain with 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name, and offering for sale substantially the same menu items.”
Any restaurant “or similar food establishment” is to post “in a clear and conspicuous manner” the caloric information for each item. Exceptions are made for items not usually listed on a menu (such as condiments), daily specials, custom orders, or items being market-tested for less than 90 days.
For more definitions and examples of what the regulations are meant to entail go to this link. Vending machines are also covered under the law, as explained here.
Given we have seen nutritional labeling on our food since the 1960’s, expanding full disclosure into fast food and restaurant chains may not seem that big of a deal- but as is true with all things ACA- this portion of the law has received significant pushback.
What’s the Beef?
The final FDA rules putting this portion of the ACA into action were supposed to go live December 2015- but the agency “caved in” to lobbying pressure last summer and delayed enactment for another year.
What stopped this simple idea?
The idea of publishing calorie counts right on the menu raised concerns for people in the food business- but in particular the pizza industry went on a lobbying binge. A Dominos Executive declared the new regulations “a disaster for everybody.” I am sure that has nothing to do with the nutritional content of pizza, but I am reminded of when I was a nurse many moons ago we used pizza [not hot fudge sundaes] to deliver sugars to diabetics participating in a prestigious national diabetes study.
But I digress.
To be fair- there were other concerns raised– such as how do you list calories in a burrito when there are endless options for what is included in that tortilla? How do you do calorie counts for take-out ordered by phone? And who is going to police this entire new world of government intervention?
Last but not least- many detractors will tell you posting calorie counts don’t work– you can’t make Americans eat better. But of course there are alternate studies that show informing the public about what they are eating does, in fact, make a difference. You might not change all behavior, but you can start to change the health habits of some. Isn’t that enough?
I Just Like Them
So forgive me for being simplistic and easily manipulated- but I like calorie postings. And I have a feeling I am not alone.
In all fairness to the restaurants I randomly picked for examples already, I did get those calorie counts from their own websites. Some were a lot easier to find than others- but they were there.
The question is not can you find caloric information- it is whether it will stare back at you as you drool over the menu in a carbohydrate/fat fueled fantasy when you stand at the window ordering.
Which brings me to give a shout-out to companies that have already started to post their calorie counts on their menu- just as the ACA/FDA imagined.
Starbucks took that on voluntarily in June of 2013, and McDonalds did back in September 2012. To both, and to others who have (or will) followed suit- I say thank you.
But also “No Thank you”- I do not want fries (380 calories) or a Java Chip Frappuccino (440 calories) with that.
Want to Know More?
* In the middle of all the turmoil over the ACA/FDA Rules, the New Jersey state law is on hold waiting for final resolution of the federal law, as is California.
If you want to know more about the status of the FDA regulations, here is an excellent article from The Hill [a newspaper that covers Congress and politics- published in Washington D.C.]
If you want to know more about counting calories, here is a helpful article from U.S. News & World Report, and dos and don’ts from WebMD.
And these can help you help your kids: from the American Academy of Pediatrics and a kid friendly teaching tool here.