Menu Calorie Counts: 'Personal Responsibility' or Public Health Measure? | Civil Eats

Menu Calorie Counts: ‘Personal Responsibility’ or Public Health Measure?

Big food companies have long pushed for personal responsibility among consumers—the idea that, given the right information, most people can regulate their own diet and make good choices.

Take McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson. According to him, the mega-corporation hopes to, “use our size and scale around the world to help educate, empower, and encourage our customers to make informed choices so they can live a balanced, healthy lifestyle.” Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association’s new public awareness campaign and accompanying Mixify website is another good example. They’re aimed at educating the soda-drinking audience with a “calories in, calories out” message to prevent obesity.

Tactics like this have always been the food and beverage industry’s preferred solution—especially when faced with possible regulation. Why, then, are so many prominent food and beverage industry leaders railing against the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) new menu labeling rule?

Here’s are some recent statements by major players in the food and beverage industry vowing to pressure Congress to walk back the final menu labeling rule:

“NGA will continue to work with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to address this regulatory overreach.” ~ National Grocers Association CEO Peter Larkin

“… The unintended consequence is a lot less fresh, healthy, minimally processed food offerings unless Congress fixes this overreach.” ~ Food Marketing Institute Government Relations Director Robert Rosado

[FDA has] “clearly gone beyond Congressional intent…It is now up to the bipartisan, bicameral opponents of this regulatory overreach to enact legislation…” ~ The National Association of Convenience Stores

What these companies and trade groups seem to understand is that many educated consumers will opt for healthier food. And that’s not always good for their bottom lines.

In spite of threats by disgruntled food and beverage makers, who would prefer to keep their calorie counts a secret, the final rule is a huge win for consumers.

It mandates calorie labeling on menus and menu boards for food and drinks (including alcohol) sold at chain restaurants and other similar food establishments. Vending machine operators who own or operate 20 or more machines must also post calorie counts.

To help put the calorie information in perspective for the consumer, menus will also include this statement: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.” And more detailed nutrition information (e.g., saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates, etc.) must be available to consumers upon request. Restaurants must implement the rule within one year and vending machine operators in two.

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Menu labeling laws are already working well in approximately 18 cities and states around the U.S. And in New York, where local menu labeling measures cover about 60 percent of the state, the restaurant and food service industry’s dire predictions of financial Armageddon and excessive burdens have proven utterly unfounded.

Most importantly, many studies have found that calories on menus and menu boards are not only being read, they’re actually helping an impressive number of diners choose what to order.

A July 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), based on surveys from 17 states, found that 57 percent of U.S. adults over age 18 use menu labeling information to make their orders, when it is available, and it helps them select lower calorie options.

A New York City study found one in six customers used the posted calorie information and bought 106 fewer calories than customers who did not see or use it. And, a study from Drexel University determined that customers at restaurants with menu labels ordered food with 151 fewer calories, on average, compared to customers at restaurants without labels.

Even more important is the fact that menu labeling is causing some companies to reformulate their menus. This has already begun, thanks to the state and/or local laws that were enacted starting in 2006. Embarrassingly high calorie counts that were revealed on menus in locales like New York City, Philadelphia, and King County, Washington have led to widespread menu item reformulation to make dishes healthier.

For example, before New York City’s law was implemented, Dunkin’ Donuts Glazed Cake Stick had 490 calories, after menu labeling it had 360 calories, Before the law, McDonald’s large fries had 570 calories, after, it had 500. One of the most drastic cuts came from Romano’s Macaroni Grill, whose healthy-sounding Scallops and Spinach Salad went from a whopping 1,270 to 340 calories.

The law’s main industry supporter, the powerful National Restaurant Association, reversed its opposition to menu labeling once it had been forced to comply with a confusing patchwork of city, county, and state menu labeling laws across the country. The new FDA rule will bring uniformity to menu labeling and will provide “the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers,” according to the Association’s CEO Dawn Sweeney.

But support for the rule is much harder to find among industries that sell restaurant-type food or take-out fare. Opponents of the law included the “pizza community” (a coalition of pizza stores/corporations), convenience and grocery stores, and movie theaters. These industry segments lobbied both the White House and Congress relentlessly, asking to be exempted, and they will likely be the driving force behind the campaign to pressure Congress for regulatory relief from the final rule.

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Efforts like this make it hard to believe the food and beverage industry’s incessant push for personal responsibility is sincere. Opposing a purely educational effort reveals the industry’s real goal–maintaining the unhealthy (yet profitable) food environment that has made so many Americans sick.





Nancy Huehnergarth is president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting, which specializes in nutrition and physical activity advocacy and policy change.  She regularly posts to her blog and writes frequently for numerous publications on food reform.  Read more >

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