Calorie Counts And Chain Restaurant Menus

Download Audio
In this May 3, 2017 file photo, information cards provide calorie count and price for food items on display at a Whole Foods store, in New York. (Candice Choi/AP)
In this May 3, 2017 file photo, information cards provide calorie count and price for food items on display at a Whole Foods store, in New York. (Candice Choi/AP)

With Anthony Brooks

Calorie counts are now required by law on menus of all restaurants with 20 or more locations. Will that help trim America’s expanding waistlines and lead to healthier eating?


Allison Aubrey, NPR correspondent covering health and nutrition. (@AubreyNPRFood)

Jason Block, professor at Harvard Medical School, faculty member at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. (@jasonpblock)

Julie Downs, social and decision sciences professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Lyle Beckwith, vice president of strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores.


On how the calorie count came to be:

Aubrey: "Calorie counts are now the law of the land. Any food establishment that has 20 or more locations — wherever there is prepared foods — it's gonna come with a calorie count now. There were early adopters and that happened for two reasons. Cities, including New York City also in Seattle — there were early regulations requiring chains to do this, and chains started to see the writing on the wall. This mandate to post calories goes back to 2010. That's when Congress passed the ACA. This idea comes from the ACA."

Does it affect people's eating habits?

Aubrey: "It depends on who you talk to. The Cochrane Collaboration looked at a handful of good, quality studies, that analyzed: what happens to people's decision making when calories are posted? And they found, that on average, the research suggests that when restaurants post calories, people purchase about 50 fewer calories per meal. That's about an eight percent decline. These calorie counts don't mean anything to people if they don't have the context. People need to know that on average, 2,000 calories is the average calorie recommendation per day."

How do restaurants determine the amount of calories for food?

Block: "The most effective way is [by doing] a laboratory analysis of how many calories are in food. The FDA is allowing retailers to use a bunch of different methods, and essentially what they do is they look at ingredients that are used to make a product and all of those ingredients have a certain amount of calories. They aggregate them together, and that allows them to put forward a total calorie count for the item. And so it's a flexible part of the regulation, but all the retailers have to have documentation about how they're doing this if the FDA wants this information, and so that they can verify that they're doing it correctly."

From The Reading List:

Eater: "Chain Restaurants Are Now Legally Required To Display Calorie Counts" — "The new law applies not only to fast-food chains and sit-down restaurants, but also other businesses that sell food and beverages including convenience stores, movie theaters, grocery stores, and even vending machines."

NBC News: "What A Nutritionist Wants You To Know About The New Calorie Counts On Menus" — "Though the fine print on menus and menu boards (and the nutrition facts panel, for that matter) list 2,000 calories per day as the standard, the truth is, the number varies widely. Your daily needs depend on a variety of factors, including how active you are, how tall you are, how muscular your frame is, your hormones, your age, whether you’re trying to lose, maintain or gain weight, and more."

Before you order that pizza with extra cheese, do you know how many calories it has? Now, new federal rules require chain restaurants to tell you. An effort to nudge Americans – who are in the midst of an obesity crisis — toward better food choices. Critics say they’re intrusive, expensive to implement and don’t work.

This hour, On Point: Will new calorie-count rules help us slim down and eat healthier? Also, robots who can cook your lunch.

- Anthony Brooks

This program aired on May 9, 2018.



More from On Point

Listen Live