Americans are about to find it very difficult to avoid knowing how many calories they’re consuming every day. That’s because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week (May 7) decided to move forward with an Obama-era food labeling rule (pdf) that requires restaurants, grocery, and convenience stores with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for standard menu items.
The interesting thing about calorie counts is that, while they undoubtedly offer more transparency around the foods we choose to eat, there’s not a lot of evidence to show they affect people’s purchasing decisions. In 2017, a team of researchers led by a Harvard University professor conducted a systematic review of 53 studies on the topic. Their work was later published in the journal Obesity, and included an analysis of 18 studies of behavior in real-world restaurants, 9 from in cafeterias, and 21 from simulated settings. Five studies examined restaurant offerings.
Overall, the review found that available research lacked strong designs, which ultimately makes understanding the effectiveness of calorie count labeling all the more cloudy.
Still, the decision by the FDA was good news for some industry and nutrition groups. Marion Nestle, the well-known nutrition advocate and author of Food Politics, wrote praise on her blog for the FDA decision.
“Looking at the calories on menu items is fun!” Nestle wrote. “And it most definitely works for me. If I see a muffin labeling at 700 calories, I share it with friends.”
Also in favor of the new rules is the beer industry. Massive companies that include Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken USA, and Constellation Brands have all said through their trade group, The Beer Institute, that they will be able to follow the standards set forth by the FDA by the end of 2020.
“The Beer Institute and our members believe providing complete information about calories and other dietary information for each drink will better enable consumers to make an informed choice should they choose to include an alcohol beverage with a meal,” the group said in a statement.
Still, some people are questioning whether a printed labeling count is the best way to address people ordering food. At Syracuse University, nutrition professor Jane Uzcategui said in a statement that she’d be keen see how a more general grading system fares. Among those types of system is one modeled after traffic lights in the US. Green would represent foods that can be consumer regularly, yellow for those to eat with caution, and red for things to eat very sparingly.
“Research has shown that consumers do not know how many calories they need; without context, it is hard to use the information,” Uzcategui says.
Calorie counts are most useful for people who know they should only be eating a set number of calories per day, and have been coached on how to approach their consumption habits, she added. Still, the move by the FDA is one meant to improve upon the health of Americans.
“Our goals are to ensure that consumers are provided with consistent nutrition information they can use to make informed choices for themselves and their families,” the FDA said in a statement.