Chain Restaurants Now Required to Show Calorie Counts

As of last Monday, all chain restaurants in America are required to show calorie counts on their menus. A quick check of our local area over the last few days indicates that there is still a long way to go for full compliance.

The new rule was actually created in 2015 as a part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, there has been resistance from business owners who feel that the measure places an unfair burden on them to comply. Small chains have been some of the most vocal objectors.

Fortunately, not all restaurants are subject to the new rule. Only restaurants that have 20 or more locations are required to comply. Those that are covered by the ruling are required to post calorie information on their menus and menu boards, including online menus.

Chains like McDonalds have been displaying calorie counts for the last several years already.

The hope is that, by displaying calorie counts, consumers will make more informed food choices. While calories are not the only factor in maintaining a healthy weight, making the information readily available may help customers with portion control and sizing.

“Calories are really important because obesity is one of the most pressing health problems of our day, contributing to heart disease, cancer and especially diabetes,” said Margo Wootan, the vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

An Obamacare Leftover

Although the current administration has been seeking to completely dismantle the ACA,  the calorie count provision was spared and actually supported by the administration. So why would this piece of the ACA be spared? Some pundits believe that it is a preemptive move to avoid even more extensive labeling or warning requirements.

There have been rumblings about other efforts such as warning labels on foods. This is something that the industry would really rather avoid. So by taking this action now, the administration may be able to stave off further action by showing that it has already enacted this program.

So far, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has supported the measure in its original form.

But Will It Work?

The key question is, “Does posting calorie counts actually change customer behavior?” Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this issue. Research is ongoing and better research methods are indeed showing positive results.

Health-focused think-tank Cochrane has done recent work that indicates that posting calorie information on menus could reduce the number of calories consumed by an individual.

But the situation is even more complicated than just posting calorie counts. Where you put the calorie number is just as important. In an article from Stat, researchers found that the best results came when the calorie count was shown in front of the name of the menu item. (i.e. to the left).

“In one study at a casual chain restaurant on an American college campus, we found that diners who chose from a menu with calorie information displayed to the left of the food items ordered meals with 28.4 percent fewer calories compared to diners who chose from a menu without calorie information. By comparison, diners who chose from a menu with calorie information to the right of each menu item ordered meals with only 5.4 percent fewer calories.” – Authors Steven Dallas, Peggy Liu & Peter Ubel

As we mentioned earlier, we visited several national chains this week and found only about 75% compliance with the new rule. No word yet on how violations of the statute might be enforced. But in the meantime, look for more and more nutritional information to become available on menus as chains adapt to the new rules.

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