RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's about to get a lot harder to ignore all those calories in the fast-food breakfast specials, plus donuts maybe a lot of us stop for in the morning. Today, the Food and Drug Administration issues new rules mandating that chain restaurants nationwide post calorie information on their menus. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At a time when Americans eat and drink one-third of all of our calories away from home, it's about to get a lot easier to know just how many we're consuming. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says within one year, whether you hit the drive-thru, order off a paper menu or from the menu board at a chain restaurant, you will see calorie counts alongside menu items.
MARGARET HAMBURG: The step we're taking today to make calorie information available on menus is a really important one for public health.
AUBREY: The new rules will apply to all sorts of food establishments that have 20 or more locations, and it includes those who had tried to wiggle out of regulation. For instance, pizza makers, who argued it would be too hard to comply, will have the option to list calories by the slice as opposed to a whole pie. And movie theater chains, notorious for serving up big buckets full of buttery popcorn, are on the hook for calorie posts, too. Public health advocate Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says she's been waiting for this moment.
MARGO WOOTAN: The new rules around menu labeling are terrific.
AUBREY: She's been pushing for calorie labeling for a decade. She says with Americans spending 50 cents of every food dollar on foods prepared outside our homes, the FDA had to expand beyond restaurants to convenience stores and even vending machines.
WOOTAN: Once this provision goes into effect, people will be able to see outside of the machine, how many calories in each vended item.
AUBREY: Now, the idea here is that with calories in full view, people will pay attention and start choosing better options. But does it work? Well, Sara Bleich, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says there've been a bunch of studies done in cities such as New York, which already has calorie-posting rules in place.
SARA BLEICH: In general, the studies show that when you put calories on menu boards, only about 30 percent of consumers actually notice them.
AUBREY: But for those who do, it can be a wake-up call.
JACKIE BREWER: Oh, yeah. I was, like, oh, my gosh. I cannot believe I've been eating those rice crispy bars for so long (laughter).
AUBREY: Jackie Brewer likes to make regular stops at Starbucks, which started posting calories nationwide last year. When she realized that the bars that looked so light were hundreds of calories, it made her think twice and same with the sweet coffee drinks.
BREWER: I don't go for the frappuccinos 'cause those are, like, a half-a-day's worth of calories. It really makes you change your mind about things.
AUBREY: She says, these days, she'll have a vanilla latte.
BREWER: They can get a skinny vanilla latte that tastes very similar to be, like, a third of the calories. I find that really interesting.
AUBREY: A draft of the new calorie regulation has been on the table for a couple of years, so many chains have already started playing up lower-calorie alternatives and introducing new ones. In fact, Johns Hopkins' Sara Bleich recently published a study that found during 2013, new menu items introduced contained about 60 fewer calories compared to things that were already on the menu.
BLEICH: So our thought is that that is reflecting voluntary changes that restaurants are making in anticipation of this menu labeling law.
AUBREY: The National Restaurant Association says it strongly believes in the importance of providing nutrition information to consumers and that the FDA regulation means that, around the country, diners in restaurants will have a new tool to help them make choices that are right for them. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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