With Menu Labeling Law, Diners Will Soon Know Calorie Counts

BY Lea Winerman  March 25, 2010 at 11:08 AM EDT

Diners will soon begin getting a lot more information about the calorie counts in their fast food and other restaurant meals — whether they want it or not.

A provision in the newly-passed health care reform bill will require all restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to post food calorie counts on their menus. The provision flew largely under the radar until the bill passed — although a number of reports have come out in the past few days analyzing the possible implications.

The calorie counts won’t show up right away. The provision gives the Food and Drug Administration one year to propose specific guidelines for the new law. But Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Wall Street Journal that putting the new policy into practice could take as long as three or four years.

Some cities and states have already begun implementing their own menu labeling laws — New York City’s went into effect in 2008, and more than a dozen states were considering or had recently passed similar laws.

The goal, of course, is to reduce obesity by giving people more knowledge about the food they’re eating — in the hopes that they might choose to trade a supersize meal or large frappuccino for a smaller or healthier snack.

Early feedback on whether the tactic works has been mixed. A study published last October in the journal Health Affairs surveyed 1,156 adults in poor neighborhoods in New York. The researchers found that only 27 percent of respondents said that the labels influenced their food choices, and — perhaps even more significantly — that the labels caused no change in calorie consumption.

But Brian Elbel, a health policy professor at New York University and a lead researcher on the study, said that he supports menu labeling anyway.

“I see particular value in it when the options are this versus nothing at all,” he says. “Given that the problem is so intense, I think we have to try things….At a minimum, there’s not enough evidence yet to say it does or doesn’t work.”

Elbel and his colleagues are working on a follow-up study in Philadelphia, a city that just implemented calorie labeling in January. They’re looking at a broader socioeconomic swath of people, and Elbel says he believes there’s good reason to think that labeling may be more effective in more affluent areas.

“One reason is that people in low-income areas are more price sensitive, and these foods are a lot cheaper. The other reason is that there could be greater availability of healthier foods in neighborhoods that are less low-income,” he explains.

And in fact, a study by the New York City Department of Health that looked at a broader population was a bit more encouraging. The researchers found that people who said that they considered the new calorie information bought items with 106 fewer calories than those who didn’t. They also found that calorie consumption went down at nine of 13 restaurants surveyed after the regulations went into effect.

In the past, the restaurant industry has generally opposed menu labeling laws. But this time, they were on board, according to the New York Times. That’s because as more and more jurisdictions began to implement their own labeling laws, restaurant chains were facing the possibility of a patchwork of confusing or contradictory measures. This way, they’ll fall under the umbrella of one federal policy.

“The passage of this provision is a win for consumers and restaurateurs,” Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “We know the importance of providing consumers with the information they want and need, no matter in which part of the country they are dining.”