FDA: Menu Calorie Counts are Coming

You could try closing your eyes, but soon it will prove significantly more challenging to ignore the calories in the foods we order in chain restaurants — sit-down and fast-food eateries, as well as other retail food outlets — across the country.

That’s because the Food and Drug Administration has issued new regulations requiring restaurants and retail establishments with 20 or more locations, including convenience stores, movie theaters and even some supermarkets that sell prepared foods, to include calorie-count information on their menus and menu boards.

The rules, which will go into effect in about a year, even extend to pizza chains (much to their dismay), amusement parks and, eventually, vending machines — so pretty much wherever you grab food on the go, the truth will find you. Whether that truth will set you free to indulge with abandon or prompt you to order more healthfully is an open question.

So far, the research about how consumers react to calorie labeling — already in practice in some U.S. cities — has not painted an entirely clear picture.

“In general, the studies show when you put calories on menu boards, only about 30 percent of consumers notice them,” Sara Bleich, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently told NPR’s The Salt.

However, people who do take note of calorie counts may find themselves pulling back from high-cal options in favor of those that are not diet busters. And those less motivated may still reap the benefits of the new rules: In anticipation, restaurants have been voluntarily adding lower-calorie options to their menus or reducing the calorie content of existing items, Bleich notes, citing her recent study showing that, in 2013, new chain-restaurant menu items clocked in around 60 calories below exiting menu options.

Get ready to open your eyes and tighten your belts, people.

Amy Reiter also contributes to FN Dish.