Transparency in Nutrition Labeling–The FDA Wants Your Input

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If you are what you eat, do you have any idea what you are? In an increasing push for nutrition transparency, you’ll soon at least know how many calories you’re taking in, whether you want to or not.

If you live in California, you’re already familiar with this. In 2008 it became the first state to require calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. A visit to In ‘n Out Burger feels a little different when you look up to order and see that a Double Double, fries, and shake will total 83% of a day’s allotment in a 2,000-calorie diet. (Download a map of other areas that have attempted or passed such legislation.)

Last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes a provision that would require restaurants and vending machines with 20 or more locations to give their patrons specific nutrition information, including on drive-through boards and buffets by January 1, 2014. The FDA has written two proposed regulations about menu calorie labels and is inviting public feedback on them through July 5, 2011.

“Americans now consume about one-third of their total calories on foods prepared outside the home,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “While consumers can find calorie and other nutrition information on most packaged foods, it’s not generally available in restaurants or similar retail establishments. This proposal is aimed at giving consumers consistent and easy-to-understand nutrition information.”

Not everyone supports the change. Study results are mixed. Some show that offering the information doesn’t make a difference. One study of parents showed that while they didn’t make different choices for themselves, the did choose lower-calorie meals for their children. The Wall Street Journal cites two other examples, one of New Yorkers in 2009 that showed no influence from menu labeling, and one from Stanford University that showed average calories per transaction fell by 6% among Starbucks customers after calorie labeling started.

And it’s not strictly restaurants. The LA Times reported last week that the National Association of Theatre Owners is particularly displeased with the proposed rules. They feel that because their primary business is providing movies, not food, that their revenue from food (up to 1/3 of a theater’s income) will decrease when customers see that a bucket of popcorn is, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as much as 1,460 calories, or the equivalent of three McDonald’s Big Mac burgers. They also contain as much as 60 grams of saturated fat.

“If a movie theater is going to be serving people with 1,000-calorie tubs of popcorn, the least they could do is tell people about it,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the center, in the LA Times story. “Just because you happen to be doing something else while you’re eating doesn’t mean that those 1,000 calories won’t stop going to your waistline.”

Movie theaters may see a drop in the number of popcorn buckets sold, but an increase in nutrition transparency can have only good results for consumers. Even if it makes no change for some, for those who do take it into account, it could lead to better choices. (I confess that my earlier In ‘n Out example was from recent personal experience. And I chose to skip the fries when I got the shake.)

The one possible difficulty is in customizable menus where calorie counts can be complicated. Attention to menu design and making the choices as clear as possible (again, increased transparency) to customers can help alleviate that.

Further nutrition transparency is also, of course, only one step in changing how we eat. Calorie intake is but one aspect of a person’s complex nutritional picture. (Under the proposed rules, further information would have to be available on request, but if you’re dedicated to looking, it usually already is.) And just knowing the number of calories you’ve eaten in a day doesn’t help if you don’t know an appropriate total number, or if your sources are not themselves the healthiest.

Arguably, some people would even return to eating out more. Imagine if increasing transparency on this one factor led to an increase in labeling in other ways, not just about vitamins and fiber, but potentially even about things like the sources of your food and how it was produced. The increasing subset of the population that is concerned about such things has turned inward, shopping at farmer’s markets and from CSAs, purchasing locally grown vegetables and meat produced on small farms with friendlier, more sustainable practices. Beyond them, there are even more people who would like to make more such choices but find it difficult. What if when they all sat down to eat in a restaurant, they could know which farm the meat came from and that the vegetables were seasonal and locally produced?

Scientia potentia est.

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3 thoughts on “Transparency in Nutrition Labeling–The FDA Wants Your Input

  1. Honestly, I think parts of this are a good idea, but I’d still prefer it to be an “on request” thing rather than posting the calories where all can see and my reasoning is more of a financial one. If some chain has to use a different supplier that changes the calorie count – new signs. If they change the way they make the food – new signs. New menu item – new signs. The prices for the signs pass on to the consumers and the hassle goes to the restaurants.

    To those who say “But it’s a small price to pay” – would you want to have to do this as a small business owner who sells food? What if you like to play around or frequently get different items in because you like to change up your menus pretty regularly according to what’s in season? I just don’t agree that this is an area where we needed this much help. It should come as no surprise that a fast food burger and fries isn’t a better choice than a salad. Reminds me of NYC passing laws telling restaurants what they could/could not use in their food. Just too much government for my tastes.

  2. Ironically, the politics and economics of this are pretty much backward.

    If you really support a free and open market, as conservatives say that they do, then using the government to remove sources of market failure (in this case, imperfect consumer information) should be a good thing.

    I don’t think that it’s ever a bad thing to give consumers more information. It’s a genuinely-weird aspect of our food labeling laws that requires grocery manufacturers to put information on every carton of milk, but requires nothing of restaurants.

    For the record, I haven’t eaten fast food since I discovered the nutrition information online. I knew the stuff was bad, but not HOW bad.

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