New FDA Rules Will Freak Restaurants Into Swapping Fries for Fruit

A Burger King in Peoria, Illinois Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

New labeling requirements for ready-to-eat food mean you’ll soon see how many calories are in everything from movie theater popcorn to sugary cocktails. The Food and Drug Administration unveiled long-awaited rules today that require restaurants, grocery deli counters, convenience stores, and other outlets with more than 20 locations to post calories counts on their menus.

“This initiative is really all about trying to provide consumers with information that they can use to make more informed food choices for themselves and for their families,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in an announcement of the new regulations.

Except it’s still not clear that calorie labeling helps people choose healthier options. People don’t opt for healthier food when calories are posted without context, according to a July analysis of 17 studies on menu labeling published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. The FDA’s rule, however, will require restaurants to append a reminder: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.” Research shows that these kinds of details help people interpret the numbers they see next to their burgers and burritos, leading some to pick lower-calorie foods.

But the rule’s greatest impact may not be on consumers’ behavior. Instead, experts anticipate that it’ll change what restaurants decide to put on menus in the first place—changes that are already happening. According to a study published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, some major chain restaurants have introduced healthier options in advance of the anticipated FDA rules, which were first proposed in 2011.

Researchers found calories declined in new beverages, children’s menu options, and main courses. The paper doesn’t mention restaurants by name, but examples aren’t hard to find: Applebee’s began promoting a menu of entrees under 550 calories in 2013, and KFC introduced a Li’l Bucket for kids that comes in at less than 300 calories. Overall, researchers concluded that menu items introduced at major chains had 56 fewer calories than what was on the menu the year before, a 12 percent decline.

“We saw this quiet reformulation happening, where consumers aren’t aware of it, but suddenly things were having lower calorie counts,” says Sara Bleich, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the study’s lead author. “The biggest impacts of this law [are] not going to come from changes that consumers make,” she says. Rather, the decisions that restaurant chains make “in the shadows, without a lot of fanfare,” will reduce the overall number of calories they’re offering.

When local governments have required that calories be posted, customers were often surprised to learn how much they were consuming with each latte or sandwich. On a national scale, Bleich suggests that restaurants are already trying to get ahead of label shock and show they have slimmer choices available when the label requirements take effect a year from now.

The FDA’s rule was stronger than the original 2011 proposal, which did not mandate labeling for movie theaters or alcoholic drinks, both of which were included in the final policy. The new regulations also make calories on ready-to-eat food as transparent as they’ve been on packaged food since the early 1990s. “We’re very excited that this nutrition info is going to be ubiquitous,” says Melissa Maitin-Shepard, a senior policy analyst at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, which pushed for broad labeling requirements. Even if seeing calories on the menu doesn’t steer you to the salad bar, the fact that food companies will have to post them might make your meal a little bit lighter.

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