If calories count, then calorie counters will get a big boost Monday as one of Obamacare’s big social changes kicks in: a requirement that chain restaurants, supermarkets and movie theaters begin posting information for all of their offerings.
Although some fast-food chains began posting calorie counts a decade ago to comply with a patchwork of local laws, there has never been a national requirement until now.
The 2010 health care law’s mandate, which had been delayed repeatedly, is finally going into effect.
Analysts say the most visible changes will occur at supermarkets that offer prepared foods at bakery sections, salad bars and hot buffets, yet have been slow to adopt calorie labeling.
The Cheesecake Factory is one of the more prominent chains that will usher in changes on Monday. Nutritional information will be added to online take-out menus, and hosts at each restaurant will have a hard copy available at the front desk.
The company said it is in the middle of a printing cycle, so table menus won’t have the calorie information until early summer.
The Food and Drug Administration says that’s OK because it wants to help restaurants and grocery stores come into compliance over the coming year instead of issuing fines or warning letters.
“Nobody is going to be hammered for not having everything in place,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told The Washington Times.
Americans typically get a third of their calories outside the home, so federal regulators have been working for nearly a decade to help consumers understand what is in each breakfast muffin, afternoon hamburger or evening dessert and make healthier choices.
Roughly 230,000 restaurants will fall under the menu labeling law nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Big chains such as Starbucks and McDonald’s already are in compliance — you’ll find a 410-calorie Caffe Mocha or a 550-calorie Big Mac on those menus — but lobbyists for pizza chains and other businesses have dragged out the fight. They said the rules would be too costly and difficult to calculate for, say, a pizza with five different toppings.
The Trump administration delayed the rules for another year when it came on board but kept the mandates moving forward.
Dr. Gottlieb said the rules inject transparency and competition into a free market, so they shouldn’t be seen as the long arm of the government reaching in where it shouldn’t be.
“There is a place for providing a basic level of information and having a uniform playing field for the disclosure of that information,” he said. “You’re comparing apples to apples — literally. I think that’s a pro-market notion.”
The calorie rule applies to chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations. Movie theater chains and vending machine operators also must comply.
Advocates who pushed for federal standards for years said implementation is a long time coming.
“The desires of consumers were enough to overcome the opposition of the industry to regulation,” said Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Consumers want to know what’s in their food, and we’ve long thought they have a right to know.”
What is not clear is whether the numbers will make a difference in what consumers choose.
For one thing, analysts say, many consumers don’t notice the counts, which use the same font as prices.
A 2009 study of low-income, minority populations after New York City mandated calorie counts didn’t detect any change in the amount of calories purchased. In 2011, researchers examined seven studies that looked at calorie postings and found that only two of them reported a statistically significant drop in calories purchased.
Sara Bleich, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said there is evidence that labeling rules prompt restaurants to slash calories from their dishes, largely because of a small but “very vocal” pool of consumers taken aback by high calorie counts might ask, “Why do you have a 900-calorie appetizer?”
“I think there’s a lot of consumer shock. It’s those well-educated, vocal consumers,” she said.
Harvard researchers looked at local labeling requirements and found that restaurants reduced the number of calories in newly introduced menu items in 2013 by about 60 calories, or 12 percent, compared with 2012.
Dr. Gottlieb said in a recent blog post that if Americans consumed 64 fewer calories per day, on average, then they would help the nation meet the government’s goal of reducing youth obesity by 2020.
“Over time,” he said, “this can drive population-wide changes.”
The FDA says it has worked to make the rules “maximally beneficial” to consumers and “minimally burdensome” to companies. Calorie counts don’t have to be included on marketing materials, and companies can provide a calorie range on “build your own” foods such as pizzas.
Domino’s, which pushed hard against a one-size-fits-all approach to labeling, said it provides calorie counts on its website because it gets the vast majority of its sales online or over the phone.
For the 10 percent of customers who walk into stores, the company said, it can provide a spreadsheet or menu upon request.
Domino’s hopes this method will satisfy the FDA because changing all of its menu boards would be costly. Many customers know what they want and don’t look at the boards, anyway, spokesman Tim McIntyre said.
Dr. Gottlieb said the agency will review compliance on a case-by-case basis but added that it is unlikely any stores will have to tear up their menu boards if other forms of disclosure are available.
“We’re going to be flexible,” he said.