Calorie Counts Across the Nation

FDA finalizes calorie labeling rules for chain restaurants, vending machines, movie theaters and similar retail food establishments

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Soon, the calorie count in a quarter-pounder with cheese at your favorite restaurant chain will no longer be shrouded in mystery.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finalized long-awaited rules requiring chain restaurants, vending machines, grocery stores, movie theaters and coffee shops to post calorie information on their menus.

"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, MD. "Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families."

To some experts — such as Deborah Gordon, MD, nutrition expert and operator of an integrative medical practice based in Ashland, Oregon — these rules are a bit outdated.

"The new FDA rules must have taken a decade to implement, because a more up-to-date approach to nutrition places greater emphasis on the importance of food quality compared to a simple calorie count," Dr. Gordon told dailyRx News. "A misguided emphasis on calories created a population shift away from dietary fats (9 calories per gram) to carbohydrates (4 calories per gram), mistakenly perceived as less fattening.

"What we choose to eat should derive from a complicated understanding of nutritional needs and food quality," Dr. Gordon said. "As a simple example, two farm fresh eggs fried gently in real butter overwhelm a dry half-bagel, both in physiological benefit and calories contained. Only a very shortsighted orientation ('I only ate 1600 calories today!') could possibly induce one to prefer the bagel to the eggs. My calorie count might top 1600 calories, but choosing eggs gives me a breakfast plate rich in vitamins A and K2, as well as the difficult to find brain nutrient, choline, richly supplied in eggs."

The new FDA rules, which will be issued later on Tuesday, apply to restaurants and similar retail food establishments that have at least 20 locations, do business under the same name and sell mostly the same items.

And the rules go beyond calorie information — if a customer asks one of these businesses for more nutrition information, that business must provide it. That information can include total calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein.

Certain states and localities already have requirements for menu labeling. Some chains, such as Panera and McDonald's, already display calorie counts on their menus. According to the FDA, the new federal rules will help chain restaurants avoid situations in which they have to meet different labeling requirements in different states.

To finalize these rules, the FDA considered more than 1,100 comments from restaurants, consumer groups and other stakeholders. After this review, the agency gave some flexibility to certain establishments. For instance, pizzas — which can have a wide range of topping combinations — can be labeled by the slice rather than the whole pie. Restaurants serving alcohol will also need to display information for certain drinks.

Restaurants and other chains with food for sale will have one year to comply with the new requirements. So, when the rules take effect, how are consumers supposed to use the new calorie information? To help consumers out, menus and menu boards include this statement: "2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary."

Review Date: 
November 25, 2014
Last Updated:
December 16, 2014