Calories coming to a menu near you. But which ones?

Public health advocates celebrated when, after an epic battle, Congress finally agreed to mandate that chain restaurants post calories on their menus. No longer would it be possible for diners to think they were ordering well when choosing the grilled chicken Caesar salad at Chili’s only to find out that it has more than 1000 calories.

But the devil is in the details when it comes to writing federal regulations. And those same advocates, who cheered the measure’s passage, are now criticizing the Obama Administration’s proposed regulations, due to be finalized this year. In a letter released today, more than 80 national, state, and local health organizations and experts, including the American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National PTA urged the Obama administration to tighten gaping loopholes in the new rules.

Among their objections:

  • The rules’ exemption of foods sold in movie theaters, casinos, bowling alleys, stadiums, hotels, airlines, and cafes and delis in superstores. (I know. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a bucket of movie popcorn is a splurge but did you know it is the equivalent of a pound of baby back ribs and a scoop of Haagen-Dazs ice cream or two Big Macs?)
  • The rules’ exemption of alcoholic beverages from labeling.  Alcoholic drinks are the fifth-largest source of calories in American adults’ diets, and the calorie content of alcoholic beverages can vary widely.  Without labeling, a person would not know that at TGI Fridays the Fresh Mango Lemonade Shaker (410 calories) has twice the calories of the Lemon Twist Martini (200 calories).
  • The decision to allow the calories of vending machine items to be posted on a sign next to the machine. The Obama health bill explicitly states that companies “provide a sign listing the calories in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button.” The rules also exempt bulk vending machines, which usually dispense candy or other junk food and make up 20 percent of vending machines.

Whether disclosing calories on a menu will change consumer behavior remains the subject of contentious debate. But recent studies [PDF] suggest that it can: An analysis of 100 million transactions over 14 months at Starbucks by researchers at Stanford University showed that when calories were posted prominently, the average number of calories per transaction fell by 6 percent. In my own (admittedly anecdotal) research in Huntington, West Virginia, I found that consumers feel helpless when ordering off a restaurant menu. They’ve heard time and again how hard it is to know what’s good and what’s bad. And this, ironically, gives many the permission to go straight for the burger and fries — or the even-worse-for-you grilled chicken Caesar.

As she often does, Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it best:  “You’d think, given the Administration’s strong commitment to addressing childhood obesity, that it would try to provide nutrition information for as many foods in as many venues as Congress required.”

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.