How do you feel about knowing the caloric content of meals you eat at restaurants? Would it make you change your food choices, or would it make you lose your appetite?
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama in March of 2010 contains a provision that requires mandatory nutrition labeling for foods sold at chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments.
Study participants who were aware of the number of calories in the meal they ate consumed fewer calories on average.
Under the law, restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more establishments doing business under the same name and selling essentially the same menu items will be required to post the caloric content of their standard menu offerings. Examples of such food establishments include fast food restaurants, quick-service restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, and some grocery and convenience stores. Other establishments that sell food, such as movie theaters, bowling alleys, and airplanes, are not subject to the proposed rule.
Food establishments subject to the rule would be required to display the number of calories for standard menu items on menus, menu boards, and drive through menu boards, and they would be required to provide additional nutrition information if requested by customers. Restaurants may choose to display additional nutrient information through brochures, posters, or electronic means. Self-service items would also be required to be labeled with the calories per food item or serving. In addition, restaurants must provide a statement about suggested daily calorie intake. The USDA proposes the following statement: "A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary."
Food service establishments are not the only ones affected by the new law. Vending machine operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines will be required to post calorie information for the food sold in a vending machine unless the information is visible on food packages inside the machine.
In a news release from the Food and Drug Administration, Kathleen Selelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said, "These proposals will ensure that consumers have more information when they make their own food choices. Giving consumers clear nutrition information makes it easier for them to choose healthier options that can help fight obesity and make us all healthier."
But will they? A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that 44% of college students surveyed and 57% of the other adult respondents reported that they were not likely to use food label information in restaurants if it were available. Women were more likely than men to say they would use calorie information from restaurants. The authors suggested that using "low." "moderate," and "high" calorie designations on menu items could be a more effective way to reach consumers. However, in another study published in the American Journal of Public Health researchers found that calorie labels on restaurant menus impacted food choices and intake, and that adding a recommended daily caloric requirement label increased the effect. Study participants who were aware of the number of calories in the meal they ate consumed fewer calories on average. Not until the new law fully takes effect will we know if calorie postings in restaurants is too much information for consumers or if it will change consumers’ food choices.