It’s about to get a lot tougher to hide from calories.
Chain restaurants, vending machines, grocery stores, coffee shops and pizza joints will soon have to display detailed calorie information on their menus under long-awaited rules to be issued Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration.
The calorie-posting requirements extend to an array of foods that Americans consume in their daily lives: popcorn at the movie theater, muffins at a bakery, a deli sandwich, a milkshake at an ice cream shop, a drive-through cheeseburger, a hot dog at Costco or Target.
“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home, and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. The new rules will help people make more informed choices about the food they eat, she said.
Chain restaurants and other establishments will have one year to comply with the regulations. Owners of vending machines will have two years to post calorie information for each item inside the machines on nearby placards, posters or digital displays.
Activists who for years have pushed for more transparent and consistent menu labeling, saying it would provide an important tool in combating the nation’s obesity epidemic, praised the FDA’s action.
“I consider this an enormous advance for public health education and well worth the long wait,” said Marion Nestle, a prominent nutrition expert and public health professor at New York University. “This is great news for public health and, hopefully, an incentive to restaurants to reformulate their offerings to be lower in calories.”
The enthusiasm wasn’t universal.
Some industry groups, such as those that represent grocery stores and pizza outlets, have argued that it is impractical and onerous to require calorie labels on food that is made to order and can vary by customer. They have insisted that the effort would shrink bottom lines far more than waistlines.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Rob Rosado, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents thousands of supermarkets and grocery wholesalers.
Rosado said 95 percent of food in grocery stores comes with nutrition information, thanks to a 1990 law that required labels on packaged foods, and that prepared foods represent only a fraction of each store’s business. Requiring labels for fresh food made in grocery stores, delis and bakeries could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars in signage, worker training and laboratory tests to determine the calories in each dish, he said. He thinks it also might prompt stores to carry fewer freshly made items to avoid the regulatory headaches.
“You’re penalizing any kind of freshness. . . . It’s going to be replaced with prepackaged food,” Rosado said. “It’s going to have a negative impact for grocery store consumers.”
The rules date to a little-publicized provision in the Obama administration’s broad 2010 health-care law. It required food establishments to post calorie information on menus and drive-through signs, but exactly which retailers would be subject to the law has been the focus of intense debate, relentless lobbying and years of delay.
The FDA first issued its menu-labeling proposals in 2011. Since then, the agency has received hundreds of comments about what food should be subject to the rules — with consumer advocates, pizza places and theater chains among those trying to sway the administration.
“It was much more complicated than we originally thought it would be,” Hamburg told reporters Monday.
Ultimately, the regulations issued Tuesday include a swath of places where Americans buy food, although the FDA also carved out exemptions:
The calorie-posting requirements apply to restaurant chains with 20 or more locations, but not to smaller independent establishments such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has only a handful of restaurants. Regular menu items must have calorie counts, but daily specials and seasonal items don’t have to. Some types of alcohol on the menu are covered, but mixed drinks at the bar get a pass.
Prepared foods at grocery stores and delis are included, but items intended for more than one person — a pan of potato salad or a tray of sliced meat, for example — are exempt. Pizza parlors must list calories like everybody else (including online when a customer is ordering), but the FDA will allow them to post calorie ranges rather than exact figures, given the massive number of possible topping combinations. The requirements don’t apply to food trucks or food served on airplanes.
Despite ongoing opposition from some corners of the food industry, the rules got support from the National Restaurant Association, which prefers a uniform national standard to the current patchwork of state and local regulations.
“We believe that the [FDA] has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers,” the group’s president, Dawn Sweeney, said in a statement Monday.
The question of whether listing calorie counts leads to better choices remains unresolved. Some studies have suggested that menu labeling does little to sway consumers to alter what they eat. Meanwhile, research in Seattle showed that after that city began requiring chain restaurants to post calories, the chains began using lower-calorie ingredients in some dishes.
“We’ll know a lot more about actual changes in behavior as a result of this over time. But there are many influences on diet and behavior and health,” Hamburg said Monday. “This initiative is really all about trying to provide consumers information that they can use to make more informed food choices for themselves and for their families.”