On Tuesday, Nov. 25, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new requirements about calorie labeling that would stretch even into movie theaters and bars. Menu labeling was part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), requiring chain restaurants (with more than 20 locations) to post calorie counts on their menu boards, but the law was stymied for three years due to food industry lobbyists. However, the new regulations extend upon that original law and cover a broader range of food establishments.
As part and parcel of these new regulations, now movie theaters, pizza establishments, amusement park fare, pre-prepared food in supermarkets, and even alcoholic beverages will require calorie labeling. Alcoholic beverages are perhaps the most surprising inclusion, since they had remained out of the earlier ACA requirements. Any alcoholic beverages listed on menus or menu boards will mandate calorie posting, although mixed drinks ordered at the bar will not. Marion Nestle, a renowned professor of nutrition at New York University, stated: “It’s much tougher than the original. I’m amazed. It never occurred to me that alcohol would make it in.”
The timing of these new regulations is not a coincidence, however. When the ACA was supposed to take effect in 2011, that came the year before the presidential election and therefore, controversial items such as calorie posting in movie theaters, were not included. These regulations, however, come a few weeks after midterm elections and are far more radical in their scope. Regardless of the timing, though, the FDA will still receive pushback from the food lobbyists, which could slow or prevent implementation.
The science regarding calorie posting is still developing, with a need for wider implementation needed to effectively study the public health impact of the changes. However, calorie posting does offer transparency to consumers about the foods they are ordering and acts at least as an educational tool. A 2010 study of Starbucks registers post-calorie posting showed that the average consumer decreased their calories per transaction by six percent. Interestingly, individuals who ordered more than 250 calories prior to the calorie labeling decreased their calories per transaction by 26 percent. This indicates that this policy does have the potential to effect change, especially in those at higher risk of ordering more.
Additionally, more research needs to be conducted to determine whether calorie labeling poses a risk for increasing eating disorders or disordered eating. There is not evidence to suggest this yet, but as roll-out occurs, public health researchers will need to take advantage of the opportunity to thoroughly research the impact of these policy changes.