What Restaurants Are Trying to Hide From You

February 18, 2016

If you’ve been out to eat lately, you know that an increasing number of fast-food and quick-service restaurants are now posting the number of calories next to the names of menu items. You may not know that these establishments are not forking over this information out of the goodness of their corporate hearts, but because they’re required to do so by law.

In addition to numerous state and local laws to this effect, there’s now a federal law, overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, which requires that chain restaurants and vending machines post caloric information on their menus in the store and make the full nutritional information for each item available in writing upon request.

Don’t blink, because those restaurant calorie counts might soon be going away—before they were even rolled out everywhere.

Last week, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the “Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act,” which relaxes the current federal menu labeling law. Under the new policy, restaurants would be able to make up their own serving sizes and deny customers calorie information on menu boards inside pizza chains and many other restaurants. Not to mention, the bill also weakens enforcement and consumer protection.

The current menu labeling law was established in 2010 as part of the passage of the Affordable Care Act but has not gone fully into effect. Some restaurants, however, have voluntarily added calorie counts to their menus because of various state and local laws. Chains are supposed to be in full compliance with the law by the end of 2016.

The logic behind the inclusion of calorie counts with menu items at chain restaurants is simple: provided nutritional information, consumers may be more likely to choose a healthier, less caloric item.

But some chains seem to fear what such information might do to sales of some of their more popular (and yes, less healthy) menu items. Pizza companies, in particular, have taken aim at the law, claiming they should be judged differently from other fast-food chains like McDonald’s or KFC. For instance, under the amended law, pizza chains would not be required to list calorie counts in the store, but could put them online. Additionally, the legislation would allow pizza chains to establish their own serving size (two pieces, in the case of Pizza Hut), and only list the calories per serving size.

Numerous nutrition groups have opposed the changes, which now go on to the Senate for review.

“Despite the clever name, this anti-menu labeling bill is neither common sense nor would it disclose additional nutrition information,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has led the charge for restaurant nutrition labeling. “It would result in consumer confusion and prevent disclosure of straightforward, consistent calorie information at many food service establishments.”

Photo credit: Cara Slifka via Stocksy

This article is related to:

Educational, Food, News, Nutrition

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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