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Calorie Counting Comes of Age at Chain Eateries | Apr. 13, 2011

Soon, you won’t be able to ignore the caloric carnage of that Iced Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha, Triple Whooper Sandwich with cheese or Macho Beef Burrito you’re ordering.  There is a new FDA proposal, which is an outgrowth of last year’s health care reform legislation.  The new laws will mandate calorie counts on menus at 280,000 establishments nationwide.  The rules, which could take effect by 2012, would require menus to list calories for every item at chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets, along with bakeries, grocery stores with prepared foods, convenience stores, coffee chains and even vending machines.


Exemptions to the rule include locations where food isn’t the primary business, such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and airplanes.  Unfortunately, alcohol is also exempt, so bars and drink menus will not have to list calories of their beverages.  However, the same rule does not apply to soft drinks and other caloric beverages.  Nutritional data beyond calories – total calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and total protein – would have to be made available in writing upon request.  The act also requires vending machine operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines to disclose calorie content for certain items.


Currently about one-third of our total calories come from foods prepared outside the home.  So this is important information for consumers in making healthful choices.  It may also have a ripple effect for industry decreasing the demand for certain higher calorie items.


Surprisingly, the National Restaurant Association endorsed the rules, saying they would provide consistency for consumers.  This is because many restaurants are seeing a rise in consumer demand for nutrition information and healthier menu options.  Now more than ever, Americans are trying to eat more healthfully, but need the tools necessary to do so.  Some are concerned about nutrition related health problems, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, while others are concerned about weight management or maybe carbohydrate counting.  Restaurants are responding to demand and know it’s good for business to meet the nutritional requests of their customers.


As our nation turns the corner into a nutrition-focused era, it is an exciting time to be a dietitian.  Teaching clients how to eat out and still maintain a therapeutic diet is much easier as the information becomes available.  Savvy restaurants are positioning their companies to benefit from this health shift, demonstrating their true culinary creativity without losing taste.