Currently browsing posts about: Calorie-labeling

Apr 1 2013

Menu labeling: What’s new?

Today I’m doing a roundup of items about menu labels.  Remember them?

The President signed calorie labels into law when he signed the health care act more than three years ago.

The FDA has still not issued rules for them.

Where are they?

The Associated Press tried to find out.

It quotes FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg :

There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side, and we have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable…menu labeling has turned out to be one of the FDA’s most challenging issues.

Why?  The restaurant and food industries don’t like it.  They want exemptions for movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys and other businesses whose primary business is not to sell food.   And alcohol, of course.

And rumors continue that the White House Office of Management and Budget is holding them up.

Will menu labels work?

They certainly work for me.

And it looks like they might work for other people too, especially if accompanied by traffic-light labels indicating calorie levels.  Or so says a recent study from Oklahoma State.

Calorie counts most influenced purchases when accompanied by a green light label for foods with less than 400 calories, a yellow label for foods with between 401 and 800 calories, and a red label on those with more than 800 calories.

Are the posted calorie amounts accurate?

With just a few exceptions, they are close enough not to worry about, says Consumer Reports.

Come on, FDA, get the rules out so everybody can have as much fun with these as I do.

Feb 8 2013

Rumor: the White House is holding out for weak calorie labeling

I hope the rumors I’m hearing are not true.

What sources are telling me is that the White House has decided not to allow the FDA to require calorie labels in movie theaters or anywhere else where selling food is not the primary business.

If these rumors have any validity, this situation is a sad commentary on how corporate pressures are undermining Michelle Obama’s Let Move campaign.

There is no practical reason that keeps movie theaters from posting calorie labels.

Plenty are already doing it.  New York City has had calorie labeling in movie theaters since 2008.  And guess what?  The world has not come to an end.

It’s approaching three years since President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes national calorie labeling.

But the FDA still has not issued final rules, reportedly because the White House is holding them up.

The delay has left plenty of time for industry lobbying and pushback.

If the new rules exempt movie theaters and other such places, New York will not be able to continue requiring them to post the information.  That would be a significant setback.

So would exempting prepared foods in chain groceries and convenience stores, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest makes clear.

If you have concerns about this issue, send a message to Mrs. Obama at the White House.

Menu labeling that covers movie theaters as well as fast-food places will help people make healthier food choices.  It will also be a significant achievement of Let’s Move.

In the meantime, I’m keeping fingers crossed that the rumors are false.

Jan 31 2013

FDA’s research on food labels: any help?

Nutrition Facts panels on food labels are notoriously confusing.  People who use them usually look for only one item such as fat or calories.

As I’ve discussed previously. the label is so difficult to interpret that the FDA devotes pages on its website to explaining it.  When the FDA did the original research in the early 1990s, it tested a large number of formats.  When it became clear that people did not understand any of them very well, the FDA chose the least worst—the one that was understood least poorly.

Two decades later, the FDA is revisiting the Nutrition Facts panel to make it easier to understand in the light of today’s concerns about calories and obesity.  Once again, it is testing multiple formats.  The results of the first round of research have just been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND), and reporters are trying to make sense of them.

FDA researchers tested 10 formats differing in number of servings and columns (1 or 2, each), font size, and wording.  They asked respondents for opinions about the healthfulness of the product, number of calories and nutrients per serving, perceptions of the label, and the ability to choose healthier products and those with fewer calories.  This, like the research in the early 1990s, is complicated.

The result:

For products that contain 2 servings but are customarily consumed at a single eating occasion, using a single-serving or dual-column labeling approach may help consumers make healthier food choices.

Here’s an example of one of the formats that may help:

Soda companies are already doing something like this, but a 20-ounce soda has more than 2 servings.  Serving size is what confuses.  If it’s 100 calories per serving, those calories have to be multiplied by the number of servings per container.

The Institute of Medicine produced two reports for the FDA on front-of-package labels and also suggested a way to integrate its ideas into the Nutrition Facts label.

Is the FDA testing this idea?  I hope so.

Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Oct 9 2012

Big Soda to put calorie labels on vending machines in city offices in Chicago and San Antonio

Yesterday, Beverage Digest announced that the American Beverage Association (ABA) and its Big Soda members—PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper/Snapple—were starting a “new vending machine program to help combat obesity.”

The new “Calories Count Vending Program” starts in 2013 in city buildings in Chicago and San Antonio.

This, Beverage Digest says, “is what can happen when the industry and mayors work together, collaboratively.”   It quotes an executive from Dr Pepper Snapple: “this program is yet another example of how the beverage industry is providing meaningful solutions to help reduce obesity.”

Really?  If these companies really wanted to help reduce obesity, they might start by eliminating sugary drinks.  But never mind.  This is about politics, not health.

For one thing, calorie labels are going to have to go on most vending machines anyway, as soon as the FDA gets around to writing the regulations for them.

For another, this move heads off any attempt to introduce (horrors!) taxes on sodas or caps on bottle size in those two cities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is quite clear about that.  He says his approach to the health issue “is better because it emphasizes personal responsibility.”

He prefers to have Chicago city workers compete with those from San Antonio for a $5 million grant from the ABA.  The ABA has also agreed to pay $1,000 to workers who meet health goals to be determined.

Although this might look like a bribe, Emanuel denies that the program is a payoff:

I believe firmly in personal responsibility,” the mayor said at a City Hall news conference with the pop company executives. “I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care.”

According to the New York Times, Mayor Emanuel actively sought the ABA grant.

If only personal responsibility worked, alas.  So much evidence now shows that it’s not enough to change behavior.  It is also necessary to create a food environment more favorable to making healthful choices.

That’s the public health approach taken by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg .  His approach is to make the food environment more conducive to healthful choices without anyone having to consciously think about them.  This approach is more likely to reduce soda consumption, which is why the ABA wants to head off taxes and caps.

Oh well.  Education is always a good thing, and here’s what the ABA says the vending machines will look like.

Sep 13 2012

McDonald’s will post calorie info on menus. Won’t it have to anyway?

I’m puzzled by the huge media attention to McDonald’s announcement that it will post calories on menu boards.

McDonald’s will have to do this sooner or later.  By doing it now, it gets a public relations bonus.

Why will it have to?  Because the Affordable Care Act takes menu labeling national (see my previous post on this).

When the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it made menu labeling constitutional.

The FDA wrote proposed rules for menu labeling early in April.  These, you may recall, contain exemptions for movie theaters and other venues.  Note: There is still time to file complaints about the exemptions.

Implementation of the rules can’t begin until the White House Office of Management and Budget releases them.  It’s had them—along with food safety and other regulations—under consideration for months.

Presumably, OMB will act eventually.

McDonald’s looks like a champion getting out in front on this one.

Other fast food places will have to post calories too.  The only question is when.

Aug 13 2012

Think pizza should list calories? Sign on.

Remember menu labeling?

The Affordable Care Act (now ruled constitutional) instituted national menu labeling—the posting of calories on the menu boards of fast food chains.

The FDA still has not issued final rules, leaving vast amounts of time for lobbying and pushback.

Now John Carter (Rep-TX) has introduced HR 6174, the anything but “Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012.”

This bill was introduced under lobbying pressure from the pizza and supermarket industries.

Its purpose is to exempt supermarkets and convenience stores from having to post calorie information on prepared foods.  This would allow pizza chains to list calories per serving, thereby defeating the entire purpose of the menu labeling law.

The pizza industry learned that it could get Congress to do what it wanted.  Even a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving in school meals.

If you thing calorie labeling on pizza might be a good idea, now is the time to write your congressional representatives.  Here’s how.

Jul 30 2012

Pizza chains want easier (or no) menu labeling

Now that the Supreme Court says that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it’s time to get those pesky menu labeling regulations in place.  That Act, you may recall, included a provision to take menu labeling national.

Late in May, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that pizza restaurant chains were banding together to fight FDA’s forthcoming menu-labeling regulations.

The American Pizza Community (TAPC) represents chains like Domino’s Pizza, Papa John’s Pizza, Little Caesar Enterprises, the International Pizza Hut Franchise Holders Association, Hungry Howie’s and Godfather’s Pizza.

TAPC members want alternatives for menu labeling that “would work for pizza.”

When there are 34 million ways to top a pizza just at Domino’s, it’s easy to understand how the one-size-fits-all situation currently proposed doesn’t work for pizza.

On June 4, Food Chemical News said the pizza industry would be asking Congress for an exemption from the menu labeling final rule.

Two days later, TAPC denied that charge.

On June 19, the Washington Post reported that TAPC met with congressional representatives to push for changes to the menu labeling plan.  What kind of changes?  Could they include exemptions?  Not clear.

TAPC is getting somewhere.  Congressman John Carter (R-TX) has just introduced a bill to weaken the national menu labeling law.  This would exempt supermarkets and convenience stores from having to post calorie information on prepared foods, gives a break to pizza, and allows calories to be listed by serving size.

Also in the meantime, Food Chemical News says the House Appropriations subcommittee told the FDA to narrow the focus of its menu labeling rule.  Translation: leave out movie theaters and, maybe, pizza.

I happen to love pizza, but it is unquestionably a major source of calories in American diets.  A slice of a big thick pizza can easily run 1000 calories.  I’d like to think that some pizza eaters might find that information useful.

I think pizza places should label calories—really, they can figure out how to do it—and that’s what I told  CBS TV on June 20.

Margo Wootan at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has an op-ed in The Hill with a good summary of the reasons why menu labeling needs to get moving.  If you agree, CSPI has a model letter you can quickly send to the President, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (the FDA’s parent agency), and the FDA.

What’s holding up the regs?  First, the Supreme Court, but that’s no longer an excuse.  The upcoming election maybe?  That’s no excuse either.

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