Commentary

New FDA Regs On Calorie Counts Exceed Activists' Expectations

Ignorance will no longer be caloric bliss for folks munching out at their favorite chain restaurant, mindlessly downing butter kernels at the local bijou, dropping dollars for sweets in vending machines or downing a pumpkin beer at the friendly mall chain bar. The Federal Drug Administration is introducing a sweeping set of regulations this morning that requires eateries with 20 or more outlets — and big box food courts, too — to “clearly and conspicuously” list the calories in menu items for a population that (over)consumes about one-third of its energy away from home.

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“The rules are far broader than consumer health advocates had expected, covering food in vending machines and amusement parks, as well as certain prepared foods in supermarkets,” report Sabrina Tavernise and Stephanie Strom in the New York Times. “…Perhaps the most surprising element of the new rules was the inclusion of alcoholic beverages, which had not been part of an earlier proposal,” although mixed drinks at a bar — White Cosmopolitans and Flaming Volcanos and their ilk — are not included.

“Activists who for years have pushed for more transparent and consistent menu labeling, saying it would provide an important tool in combating the nation’s obesity epidemic, praised the FDA’s action,” writes Brady Dennis in theWashington Post.

“I consider this an enormous advance for public health education and well worth the long wait,” Marion Nestle, a public health professor at New York University, tells Dennis. “This is great news for public health and, hopefully, an incentive to restaurants to reformulate their offerings to be lower in calories.”

“While there has been strong opposition from some pizza chains, theater chains and convenience store chains, the rules have strong support from the National Restaurant Association,” Bruce Horovitz reports in USA Today.

 “We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers,” NRA president Dawn Sweeney said in a statement.

“This is one of the most important public health nutrition policies ever to be passed nationally,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells the NYT’s Tavernise and Strom. “Right now, you are totally guessing at what you are getting. This rule will change that.”

“The menus and menu boards will tell diners that a 2,000-calorie diet is used as the basis for daily nutrition, noting that individual calorie needs may vary,” writes the Associated Press’ Mary Clare Jalonick. “Additional nutritional information beyond calories, including sodium, fats, sugar and other items, must be available upon request.”

“This doesn’t apply to independent restaurants, bars or grocery stores,” says FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, according to NBC News’ Maggie Fox. “It also doesn’t apply to food trucks, ice cream trucks, food served on airplanes or other transport vehicles.”

“Between one-fourth and one-third of all cancers are caused by poor nutrition, physical inactivity and excess weight,” Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, points out to Fox in applauding the new rules.

“A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 60% of adults use calorie information on menus to decide what to order,” Hansen said. The group wants the FDA “to launch an education campaign so people know how to read and use the labeling.”

Meanwhile, “Weight Watchers [Is] Serving Up Understanding to Those Who Eat Their Feelings,” in a spot launching a new campaign out of Wieden & Kennedy that is notably celebrity-free, Andrew Adam Newman informs us in the New York Times.

“The commercial,” according to Jason Kreher, a creative director at the agency, “aims not to pass judgment on anyone eating in an unhealthy way, but rather to demonstrate that Weight Watchers understands that eating can be emotionally charged.”

The Wall Street Journal this morning points to new findings that “people who excel at resisting temptation might have a secret strategy: They deliberately avoid situations in which their self-control might fail. But writer Ann Lukits makes the point that researchers for the study in the February issue of Personality and Individual Differences warn that “it isn’t known if high self-control is associated with avoiding other types of distractions and temptations, such as high-calorie foods while dieting.”

And that may the crux of the obesity problem. It is no doubt crucial to have full and accurate information to make considered judgments about what we eat but acting on that information will never be as simplistic as “just saying no.”

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