by Jason Block, MD, MPH
The long-awaited final regulations for calorie labeling were released on December 1, 2014. These regulations come 4+ years after the law requiring them passed, as part of the Affordable Care Act. The regulatory verdict from the US Food and Drug Administration is clear: Calories will be everywhere. Nearly all chain food establishments that sell “restaurant-type food” and have 20 or more sites nationally will have to post calories on their menus. Despite early signals that some food establishments might be exempt, the final regulations state that fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, movie theaters, bakeries, convenience stores, vending machine operators, and yes, bowling alleys must comply. Schools are pretty much the only entities that aren’t included. The regulations give establishments until December 2015 to post calories; vending machine operators have until December 2016.
The new regulations also don’t cover packaged foods/drinks. As directed by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, these items already have Nutrition Facts panel on them. They will not have to change their package labels as the result of this law (unrelated to the calorie labeling law, the Nutrition Facts panel is in the process of a makeover).
How dietary choices might change as a result of these regulations
Overall, prior research suggests that changes in consumer choices from labeling may be small, if they change at all. This isn’t particularly surprising. Consumers are bombarded with advertising, aromas, and decisions when they walk into a food establishment. The calorie labels will be prominent, displayed similarly to the price, but other decisions may be more important, such as the taste and price of items. Some consumers might respond readily to the labels, and others might not even notice them. But, any changes, even small ones, could have large effects across the US population. Perhaps most important are responses of food establishments and their suppliers. Establishments might reformulate their products to keep the calorie numbers down. We’re already seeing some evidence for this in Seattle, after their labeling law. Perhaps in anticipation of calorie labels, or just as a response to market demands for healthier restaurant food, new menu items being introduced in restaurants are lower calorie than older items. These changes are critical because they do not require consumers to make active choices; foods are lower calorie by default.
The widespread posting of calories also may bring greater transparency to the concept of calories, helping consumers to better estimate the calories in foods, a task that has been difficult for most of us. After 4.5 years waiting for the regulations, the final verdict on calorie labeling may be right around the corner.