Now That Calorie Labels Are Federal Law, Will We Eat Less?

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 10:00 pm

Well, it's official. Beginning today, all restaurant chains in the U.S. with 20 or more locations must post calories on menus or menu boards.

When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, back in 2010, the federal calorie posting mandate was born.

Many chains, including McDonald's, Panera and Starbucks, began posting calories several years back. But the proposed regulations hit several snags as industry groups lobbied for changes. Now, there's no escaping them.

Walk into any chain, and with a glance, there's the calorie count of that double cheeseburger you're eyeing. You may ask yourself: Should I really order that?

"Surveys show consumers overwhelmingly want this information," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote in his blog.

And what's the evidence calorie counts will nudge people to cut back?

A review by the Cochrane Collaborative, which analyzed several studies, found that calorie labels seem to reduce the number of calories people purchase by an estimated 50 calories per meal.

"That may sound like a small amount," writes Gotlieb. It comes out to less than a cookie a day, he points out. "But over a year, based on that sort of reduction, you could end up consuming 10,000 to 20,000 fewer calories, making you three to five pounds slimmer."

At a time when more than 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. is obese, Gottlieb says "national menu labeling could help make a big difference in America's obesity rates."

The awareness over calorie counts has led chains to rethink their menu offerings. For instance, between 2010 and 2011, when the conversation over calories began to get louder, fast-food restaurants slimmed down their entrees on children's menus by about 40 calories, on average. And chains, including McDonald's, have announced additional downsizing in the calories of kids' meals.

And it seems that more new menu items being introduced by large U.S. chains are slightly lower in calories. One study found that from 2012 to 2013, new menu items were 56 calories lower, on average.

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who's been pushing for clearly posted calories on menus for years, says as more chains began adopting calorie counts, she began to see clear shifts. "Looking at before to after [calorie] labeling, we've seen a significant decrease in the calories of pastries at Starbucks," Wootan told us.

She also points to Cosi and Maggiano's as examples of chains that have reworked menu items from salads to entrees to lighten them up.

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Calorie counts are now the law of the land. Beginning today, all restaurant chains with 20 or more locations must post calories on menus or menu boards. NPR's Allison Aubrey looks at how this may influence our eating habits.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Like it or not, it's now a lot harder to ignore calories when you eat out. And Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest argues this is a good thing.

MARGO WOOTAN: Here we are at Starbucks in Washington, D.C., looking at the calories that are now posted on their menus.

AUBREY: Starbucks was an early adopter. The chain began posting calories several years ago. And what's happened to their pastry offerings?

WOOTAN: The size of the muffins, the scones, the size of the coffee cakes are all a little bit smaller, not so much smaller that people would notice but enough to make a difference in the calorie count.

AUBREY: A few studies now show that when restaurants introduce calorie posts, people tend to cut back. One review estimates that on average, people purchase about 50 fewer calories per meal. This might not sound like a lot, but it can add up, says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: With about a third of meals eaten away from home, this is meaningful.

AUBREY: It's actually enough, he says, to help people fend off weight gain.

GOTTLIEB: If you look at what drives obesity, it's not necessarily binge eating where someone might go out and have a big meal on a weekend.

AUBREY: What drives it is eating a little too much every day for years. Gottlieb says if you cut back by about 50 calories a day, that's about 18,000 fewer calories over the course of one year, which could leave you 3 to 5 pounds slimmer. Margo Wootan says calorie postings can help people make these small cuts because the guesswork is gone. Consider this example.

This looks like a healthy option here. What is it?

WOOTAN: So that's the tomato and mozzarella panini has 350 calories.

AUBREY: Not much at all for a sandwich. Compare that to the lentil bowl sitting just next to it. It has 300 more calories.

WOOTAN: Usually, my rule of thumb is to go with a bowl over a sandwich because once you cut the bread, you cut calories. But in this case, it's just the opposite.

AUBREY: Wootan says this just goes to show how off our instincts might be.

WOOTAN: One of the things I like best about menu labeling is in a split-second decision, you can cut hundreds or more calories from your diet without much of a sacrifice.

AUBREY: Just by choosing one option over another. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.