WASHINGTON – The menu labeling law
The menu labeling provision,attached to the ACA,better known as Obamacare,will go into effect by the end of the year. It requires all restaurants with 20 or more outlets to provide calorie counts and other nutrition information on menus and menu boards.
Several states and local governments,including New York,Philadelphia and Seattle/King County,already require nutrition labeling in restaurants.
However,some experts say that forcing restaurants to provide calorie counts is government overreach that will be a cost burden for the restaurant industry.
Nita Ghei,a policy research editor with the Mercatus Center,and others criticized the assumption that the government knows the best dietary choices for the public – that choosing a higher-calorie meal is not necessarily evidence of inadequate information but rather is based on complex personal preferences.
“You measure the gratification more than future wellbeing. So the pleasure you get from eating a cupcake right now,or that beer,or the bagel or the extra serving of fries … that outweigh the risk of weight gain or whatever health problems you may have in the future,” Ghei said Monday.
According to a 2013 restaurant industry forecast issued by the National Restaurant Association,71 percent of adults say they are trying to eat healthier now at restaurants than they did two years ago. In addition,one-third of all adults have gone online to get nutrition data on restaurant food; the percent jumps to 45 percent for adults ages 18 to 44.
Dan Roehl,senior director for government relations for the National Restaurant Association,said the growing number of cities with their own nutrition-labeling laws created confusion and administrative issues for restaurants operating in multiple states.
“It makes good business sense to have a uniform and national standard,so that customers have access to consistent nutrition information nationwide,” Roehl said.
The National Restaurant Association represents more than 500,000 restaurant locations. It is working to ensure restaurants have flexibility in putting the new standard in place,including how the information is displayed on a menu or menu board,and when operators must comply.
Margo Wootan,director of nutrition policy at Center for Science in the Public Interest,said nutrition labeling provides an incentive for companies to reformulate products and introduce healthier options.
“There is an average of 40 percent calories cut off entrees in chain restaurants” when they post calorie counts,Wootan said.
For example,Applebee’s introduced its “Unbelievably Great Tasting and Under 550 Calories” menu featuring lower calorie alternatives to its regular menu items. A healthier substitute for the grilled shrimp and spinach salad (940 calories) is the grilled shrimp and island rice (370 calories).
Wootan cautioned that not all studies are able to measure the effect of menu labeling,and the sample size has to be large enough to show the relationship between menu labels and lower calorie selections.
The center advocates for nutrition and health,food safety,and alcohol policies.
Wilson’s group lobbies on behalf of the fast food,meat,alcohol and tobacco industries.
Wilson cited the health-halo effect, in which customers misjudge the unhealthiness of their food when it has an organic label.
The health-halo effect compares customers eating at a fast food restaurant perceived as “healthy” (such as Subway) to those at a fast-food restaurant perceived as “unhealthy” (such as McDonald’s). For example,a 6-inch “Big Philly Cheesesteak” is 500 calories at Subway,about the same as a 550 calorie Big Mac at McDonalds.
“When you go to the Subway,you will get such kind of health halo. You say this subconsciously to yourself: ‘OK,I am having a healthy lunch,’” Wilson said.
These customers are more likely to overeat later in day,he said,because the calories on the menu affect “the incredible irrational trade off and bargains in their head.”
Reach reporter Sihan Zhang at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.