Way back in March 2010, the Obama administration was a-buzz about a small policy tucked into their brand-new healthcare legislation. The policy? Basically, all chain restaurants would be required to put calorie information for each product on their in-store and drive-through signs.
The hope was that fast food restaurants and chains would be forced into more transparency about the nutritional value of their food, which is often less than ideal. The secondary hope was for consumers to have more awareness about their diet, which would allow them to make healthier choices.
At the time, people were quite optimistic about the labeling measures. In a 2010 New York Times article, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale Kelly D. Brownell called it a “historic development” with great potential benefits for public health. The NYT article also mentions how the ensuing back-and-forth with the FDA about specific regulations and lobbying from the restaurant industry might delay the measure. They were very right: the measure has only just gone into effect as of May 7, 2018, over eight years after it was signed by Obama has part of the Affordable Care Act.
In the eight-year gap, we’ve had the opportunity to see how calorie and nutritional labeling would affect us. Many restaurants, particularly chains like Starbucks, implemented calorie labeling years ago in anticipation of the measure becoming law. So what have we learned so far? It’s not super promising for health optimists like Dr. Kelly Brownell. Some studies have found that an estimate of 64% of restaurant customers use the restaurant’s nutritional labeling information at least some of the time. So at least there’s evidence consumers are paying attention. But does it do anything?
The answer is… sort of. A study in the works from the National Bureau of Economic Research has found so far that even for consumers who attempt to heed calorie count information on restaurant menus, on average they’ll only lose a pound of body weight over three years. Not very significant. Interesting statistic they found that would be of interest to the worried restaurant industry: study participants were more about 9.6% more likely to support the restaurant if calorie counts were present on their menus.
Chain restaurants won’t be only ones affected by this legislative measure being finalized, mind you. Also included are fast-food and sit-down restaurants with more than 20 locations, grocery stores, convenience stores, and even movie theaters and vending machines. The FDA has reported that over the next year it will focus on educating and preparing vendors for the transition rather than hard and fast enforcement, which softens the blow to the industry the tiniest bit. Whether food vendors will provide healthier choices or consumers will start heeding calorie count warnings is yet to be seen.