Tuesday, May 8, 2018

They're Here. . . Finally!

They’re finally here. Calorie counts on menus were part of the Affordable Care Act back in 2010. They were supposed to take effect in December of 2016. But six years just wasn’t enough time for the food industry – according to the food industry. In 2016 they lobbied for an extension until May of 2018. So here we are. Finally.

Here are some fast facts:

  • The rule applies to restaurants chains and convenience stores that have at least 20 locations. So, small business people will not be affected by this rule. 
  • Limited time menu items offered for 90 days or fewer are exempt.
  •  Several restaurant chains (Starbucks, McDonald's, and Chick-fil-A) have already complied with the guidelines. 
  • The restaurants have to post calories on the menu items where customers can easily see them. For most, that means on the menu board or menu.
  • Other information, such as fat, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates, and sodium must be available upon request. 
Why were restaurants so resistant to putting calorie counts on their menus? After all, the food companies have had to do it on food labels for decades and several restaurants did it with no apparent harm to their bottom line. Some in the food industry likely fear that people will not eat their food if it is particularly high in calories. Others say that it is expensive and time consuming to get the calorie and nutrient analysis done. Some have stated that sending their foods to a lab for analysis is expensive and burdensome. But the FDA states that they don’t have to do that. It is perfectly legal to analyze menu items using a food database. Registered dietitians do this all the time. All the company has to do is provide a recipe and a dietitian can run the analysis using a reliable database. It’s not all that expensive or time consuming. 

Some people claim that the research shows that customers don’t really change their behaviors and choose lower calorie foods when the calorie information is right there. But not all of the research results agree with that. Also, some research shows that restaurants change their behavior when they have to post calories and make changes to their menu items to lower the calories or offer other lower calorie choices.

So, while everyone’s got their own opinions on this, here’s mine:
  •       As consumers and customers, we have the right to know basic nutrition information on the foods we buy in stores or restaurants. Whether or not we act on that information is our own choice.
  •      As a registered dietitian, when I work with people on achieving their health and medical goals, this information is useful to me. I can use it to advise my clients and also teach them how to use that information.

So, I recommend you start paying attention to the menus and menu boards. If you’re trying to lose weight, compare items and choose lower calorie options or share or take home half of the higher calorie options. Use this new information to your advantage!

Beth Kitchin PhD RDN
Assistant Professor Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham  

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