Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mandatory calorie counts still stalled

Until this week, I've never thought of the Affordable Care Act when I choose nuggets over the Chik-Fil-A sandwich.

170 calories more than nuggets
That lapse is somewhat understandable.  Health insurance requirements have grabbed the headlines,  while the mandate for restaurant chains to list calories on their menus,  approved with the rest of  "Obamacare"  in 2010,  remains stalled in FDA rule-making.  As the Associated Press recently reported,  the debate has gotten  "extremely thorny"  when it comes to ruling on which businesses must display calorie counts.

The latest post from the Food and Drug Administration forecasts that rules will be ready at the end of 2014,  taking effect six months later for restaurants and a year later for vending machines,  "although input on these effective dates is welcome."

Mandatory nutrition information is part of the push to make us healthier in ways that go beyond providing insurance and encouraging preventive medical care  (depending on your political perspective,  it may also be another sign of government meddling in private business and personal choice).

Will it work?  The evidence so far is based on the growing number of restaurants that voluntarily display calories.  Marion Nestle's Food Politics blog steered me to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study which found,  not surprisingly,  that people who have healthier eating habits to start with are more likely than others to notice and use that information.

As a woman who keeps fresh vegetables at home and tries not to rely too heavily on eating out  (FAFH,  or food away from home,  in USDA parlance),  I fit the profile of someone who benefits from visible calorie counts.  I also illustrate what Duke researchers concluded last year:  It helps to have the information in advance,  rather than see it for the first time when you walk in hungry  (see Karen Garloch's round-up of that and other research on the topic last summer).

I did Weight Watchers several years ago,  when it was harder to find the calorie,  fat and fiber data needed to calculate points.  After searching the internet I was stunned to learn how fattening many of my restaurant meals were,  even when I thought I was going light.  I narrowed my list to a very few options with reasonable calorie counts for someone of my age and activity level.  One was eight Chik-Fil-A nuggets (270 calories),  a fruit cup  (50) and unsweet tea.

540 calories? Aww ...
These days the calories are visible at a glance.  I can't say I've never lapsed,  but it helps to see that 400-calorie label on the waffle fries when they're calling my name.

But it seems my vision can also be selective.  I frequently use calories on the Panera menu to choose a meal,  but until this week I'd have sworn they weren't listed for pastries.  I took a close look on my afternoon coffee walk,  and yikes!  I guess those 410-calorie chocolate pastries and 540-calorie orange scones need to stop following me home.


John said...

The focus on calories is a start, but only a start in healthy eating. Fat, esp. saturated fat, Sodium and Carbs are important too. One thing I've often noticed is when one of these is improved, one of the others is hurt. For instance, low fat, is often higher sodium and vice versa!

Typically, portion size is key.

Tandemfusion said...

Actually, we have a real world test of the efficacy of nutritional labeling in reduction of obesity and nutrition related disease. There is no evidence of a decrease in obesity or diet related illness concurrent with the 1993 requirements of the the Nutrition Labeling and Education act to label foods for retail sale with nutritional information. There is little reason, therefore to expect much from labeling of restaurant food.

There is something that you CAN expect, however: there will be fewer successful small restaurant groups expanding into regional and national chains.. Because the law exempts small restaurant groups, there is a "shoulder effect. That cut-off is, I believe, 22 unites. If you are a small group with 22 stores, you will never become a broad national chain, since the 23rd restaurant will cost a more than it will ever be wiorth by triggering the requirement of very expensive testing of your entire menu. Why would you add the 23rd store if it is guaranteed to lose money? And if you don't opne the 23rd, the 24th and 30th and 100th will never happen.

The result is a windfall for the large restaurant chains, and that is very likely the reason that it requirement is included. The ACA is shot full of this sort of example of crony capitalism, in which very large businesses are given a huge advantage by eliminating the threat of future competition. (The $600 1099 feature was another similar example: it was incapable of doing what it was purported to do, but was a gift to chain retail outlets.) Like many laws, this one was written largely by lobbyists with a clear focus on their client's best interests.

Bolyn McClung said...


Less Sugar Means Fit Tummy…is the new meaning of that old, old acronym. In the days when tobacco was king it was Lucky Strike cigarette’s ubiquitous slogan, “Lucky Strikes Means Fine Tobacco.”

Beware of alternatives to high calories. Tobacco is a great example. Between 1925 and 1930 the sale of Lucky Strikes cigarettes went from 14 billion to 40 billion with the campaign slogan, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” It was a way to attract women to smoking. It worked and at least some didn’t die fat.

It’s easy to see where this is going. Sugar will be the new tobacco. And which will you believe: your tummy or your President?

Bolyn McClung

bobcat99 said...

I looked into the labeling issue after I walked into a fast food chain in Maryland a few years ago and saw calorie counts beside each menu item. As far as the effects, what I found agrees with Ann's research that "it depends." Listing calories counts does not always help, but it won't hurt either. I think it is fine to mandate more information available to consumers to guide choices. While I don't consider myself libertarian, something American in me strongly resists the nanny state trying to limit my sugar intake, even when it's likely good for me to limit it.

I also think Tandemfusion is probably right that the ACA regs on this issue will hurt small eateries more than big chains, though I disagree that was the intent.

Tandemfusion said...

Bobcat, if it wasn't their intent, they're fools. We KNOW the result of the 1993 law, so extending it to more product can't logically be because intelligent people thought the result would be different. (A windy way of saying that the lack of impact is no secret) And because lobbyists tend to be intelligent folks, we can assume they wrote it with SOME intent. The best bet would be tha the intent was to serve their clients' general interests. Food company interests aren't slim people, they are more money. (Lobbyists only exist to make money for their clients.) when they write laws, it's a good bet that the welfare of the general public was not discussed.

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