Restaurants, stores must put calories on menus

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Begininng in May, restaurant menus will have to contain the calorie counts for all food items. | THINKSTOCK.COM

Menus for your favorite chain restaurants will soon contain more than just price, a description and a pretty yummy-looking picture.

The number calories in the dish will be there, too. Now you’ll really know how much you’re putting in your mouth – or your child’s.

The regulations, which arose from the Affordable Care Act passed in March 2010, take effect on May 5.

You’ll be able to find calories on the menus and menu boards of chain restaurants with more than 20 locations nationwide. Large supermarket chains will have to list calorie counts for prepared foods such as rotisserie chickens and sandwiches. A convenience store must post a calorie count for its prepared foods, such as muffins and doughnuts. Calorie information for food at movie theaters, such as how many calories are in a large tub of popcorn, must be listed as well.

“Wording on menus a lot of time can be deceiving,” said Mandy Enright, a registered dietitian. Consumers may think they are making a good choice, based on an item’s description, but they are not. “A lot more transparency is helpful to … make sure they are making the right choice for them,” Enright said.


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Restaurants are a big part of our lives. Americans consume, on average, one-third of their calories from restaurants and other establishments, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Today, people eat out because they’re busy and it’s affordable. Many consumers go out to pick up lunch instead of brown-bagging it at work.

All this can cause health concerns. Studies show a link between obesity, dining out and eating a lot of calories, Wootan said.

“Generally, if you look at people’s diets, they are less healthful when people eat out than when they eat at home,” Wootan said. “They eat more calories, more saturated fats, fewer fruits and vegetables, less fiber, less calcium.”

You may already see calorie information at your favorite restaurant. Some restaurants and supermarkets already have placed the data on their menus ahead of the May deadline.

New York City already has menu labeling. The Center for Science in the Public Interest cites a study which reports that 15 percent of consumers who used the information purchased 106 fewer calories in a fast food lunch.

Think about the choices you can make. “It shows people small changes they can make in a split second that can cut hundreds to even a thousand calories from your diet,” Wootan said. For instance, eat an order of a small fries rather than a large fries and you’ll save 200 calories. Order fries instead of onion rings and save 300 calories.

Here are five things to remember about the new health information on menus:

1. Prominence: Calories will be listed clearly on menus next to the name or price of the food or beverage. The information for items in hot food and salad bars will be shown on signs that are near the foods. Drive-in menu boards will have the information as well.

2. More details available: Restaurants also are required to provide written nutrition information separately on their menu items, including total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars and protein. Think about the nutrition labels on food packages that consumers read every day. “It just makes it standard and easy for consumers,” said Betsy Barrett, political and communications director for Food Policy Action, part of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity. Consumers already have the ability to read nutrition labels on food packages at the grocery store. “We just want them to have the same access tot hat information as when they go and buy something that’s been made for them at a restaurant or in the fast-food line at the grocery store.”

3. Serving sizes: The calorie information is for the amount of food you’ll see when it comes to your table, not some generalized portion that’s one-fourth of what you are ordering. “It has to be the calories in that item as ordered, just like a price would be presented,” said Pam Koch, executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “If the information is there, it’s a tool that can be used to basically help educate people in order to know what they can do to actually really take care of themselves.”

4. A complete picture: The calorie count can include combination meals. So for instance, if the sandwich comes with chips, the calories listed will include both items or provide for different combinations depending on what’s offered.

5. Vending machines: Calories will be shown on a sign near a food item or a selection button on vending machines. You may also see the calories clearly on the item’s package.

David P. Willis, USA TODAY Network

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