It's not always easy for restaurant-goers to figure out which options are the least fattening. Some diners at a California Pizza Kitchen, for example, might order the Moroccan-spiced chicken salad rather than a pizza, unaware that the salad packs 1,500 calories — three-fourths of the recommended allowance of calories for the average adult in an entire day. Few people would guess that pretty much any pizza on the CPK menu has significantly fewer calories, or that the restaurant offers a different salad with chicken that contains about half as many.
But awareness will grow when new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, announced last week, take effect. The Affordable Care Act included a requirement that restaurant chains with 20 or more locations provide calorie counts on their menus. The regulations go beyond basic restaurant menu labeling; they also require that calorie information be provided at movie theaters and amusement parks, vending machines and on some prepared foods at supermarkets — as long as these also are chains with at least 20 outlets that serve essentially the same items at each outlet.
The rules are appropriately comprehensive and shouldn't be controversial. It's not particularly expensive or onerous for a large company to figure out the numbers of calories in its foods and display that information. No one is attempting to regulate what restaurants serve or what moviegoers eat; calorie counts are neutral information for consumers to use as they see fit.
California has been waiting — too long — for these new rules. The state was at the forefront of requiring calorie counts five years ago, but that law fell into legal limbo after a second law deferred to whatever federal regulations would be adopted in the future. Some restaurants follow the original state law, others don't, and the state has not been enforcing it.
The FDA regulations are unlikely to bring about quick and dramatic change in eating habits. In places where calories already are listed, studies find that only about a third of people notice the numbers and even fewer buy something different as a result. But some people do become more aware of how many calories are in that doughnut — or, alternately, that salad — and make choices accordingly. Awareness will almost certainly grow as the calorie listings become ubiquitous. Even better, restaurants appear to respond to such labeling requirements by offering new, lower-calorie options. It took a long time for the era of supersizing to wreak havoc on America's waistlines; it will take a while for us to educate ourselves to behave differently.
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