US: FDA orders calorie labelling on fast-foods to fight obesity

The US FDA has announced sweeping rules on this week that will require chain restaurants, movie theatres and pizza parlours across the country to post calorie counts on their menus. Health experts said the new requirements would help combat the country’s obesity epidemic by showing Americans just how many calories lurk in their favourite foods.

The rules will have broad implications for public health. As much as a third of the calories that Americans consume come from outside the home, and many health experts believe that increasingly large portion sizes and unhealthy ingredients have been significant contributors to obesity in the United States.

“This is one of the most important public health nutrition policies ever to be passed nationally,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Right now, you are totally guessing at what you are getting. This rule will change that.”

The rules are far broader than consumer health advocates had expected, covering food in vending machines and amusement parks, as well as certain prepared foods in supermarkets. They apply to food establishments with 20 or more outlets, including fast-food chains like KFC and Subway and sit-down restaurants like Applebee’s and The Cheesecake Factory.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the new rules was the inclusion of alcoholic beverages, which had not been part of an earlier proposal. Beverages served in food establishments that are on menus and menu boards will be included, but a mixed drink at a bar will not, FDA officials said.

“It’s much tougher than the original,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “I’m amazed. It never occurred to me that alcohol would make it in.”

The new rules will take effect a year from now, and seem likely to face legal and political challenges from some parts of the food industry, including grocery and convenience stores that sell prepared foods for takeout.

Similar rules have already been used for years in several US states and cities, such as California and New York.

Menu labeling became law in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, and the FDA issued a proposal for how it should be put into effect the following year. But the final rules were delayed for three years, in part because of fierce opposition from pizza and movie theatre chains…..

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“Americans eat and drink one third of their calories away from home and people today expect clear information about the products they consume,” FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.

“Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”

Under the new rules, restaurants will be required to publish calorie information for all standards prominently on menus and menu boards. Temporary menu items and specials are exempt from the requirements.

The menu labeling rule also includes food facilities at venues such as movie theaters and amusement parks.

Establishments affected will also have to provide upon request detailed nutritional information for food items such as total calories, total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fibre, sugar and protein.

The finalisation of the new rules was required under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The rules come as America grapples with ever rising rates of obesity. More than a third of American adults (34.9% or 78.6 million) are obese, according to recent figures cited by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC said the annual medical cost of treating obesity in the United States in 2008 was $147 billion. Medical care for obese people averages $1,429 more per person than individuals of normal weight.

A 2009 study analyzing the effect of calorie labeling on 1,156 adult customers at fast-food restaurants in low-income neighbourhoods of New York suggested that while the policy raised awareness of calorie content, it did not necessarily affect the number of calories purchased…..