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Restaurants cutting calories before national labeling law takes effect

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Posted at 4:56 PM, Oct 08, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-08 17:31:05-04

Chain restaurants are cutting calories ahead of an Obamacare rule to put them on the menu.

New menu offerings at chain restaurants are about 60 calories lighter than was on the menu in 2013, according to a Johns Hopkins study. That's a 12 percent cut, on average. For kids meals, the decrease was 20 percent.

“The beauty of this change is that consumers have no idea,” said Susan Bleich, lead author of the study. “If these calories are slowly creeping down, people can have what they want but the calories are being cut without them having to make a choice.”

The voluntary calorie trim comes before an Obamacare rule that requires restaurant chains (20 or more locations) to display calories on their menus, nationwide.

The FDA is expected to enforce the rule by the end of 2014. Bowling alleys, movie theaters and establishments where food is not the primary purpose are exempt.

Americans eat out far more than they used to, so even small changes in calories can have a major effect.

In 1977, just 3 percent of calories were eaten at fast food restaurants in the United States, according to the USDA. By 2006, it reached 14 percent. All food eaten away from home went from 18 percent to 33 percent.

About one-third of Americans eat at a fast food restaurant each day.

Food labeling in restaurants has had mixed results. Many studies of New York City’s 2008 labeling law showed little to no reduction in calories eaten.

However, while most people ignore the labels, about one in five take them seriously and receive a significant benefit. Those people are more likely to be women and the health conscious.

The Johns Hopkins University study was published Wednesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

For the study, researchers analyzed the menus of 66 large restaurant chains in the U.S. While the restaurants offered new low calorie options, they didn’t cut calories in their “signature dishes” like delicious hamburgers or pizzas.

Bleich said it’s unknown if the decrease in calories is due to changes in nutrition or the portion size.

“Personal behaviors are resistant to change and here’s a great example of an industry moving the needle for personal health,” Bleich said.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter at @GavinStern or email him at gavin.stern@scripps.com