The Nathan's menu, with calories added. [Photograph: Kai Brinker on Flickr]

One of the less-discussed sections of last February's health reform bill was the introduction of national menu labeling. The practice of posting calorie counts beside menu items at chain restaurants has already taken effect in several cities, notably in my hometown of New York City. But making this information available on a national scale is a big step for nutrition and food education activists. The bill's requirement to post calorie counts went into effect last March, but the FDA is not required to institute binding regulations until March 23, 2011.

The FDA recently proposed rules for calorie posting, in anticipation of their March deadline. In short, the rules require that chain restaurants post calorie counts on menu boards, provide additional nutrition information to customers upon request, and indicate caloric information for self-serve food items as well. A "chain restaurant" is defined as any institution operating 20 or more food service establishments, including grocery store cafes, cafeterias, and coffee shops with enough outposts.

All packaged and fresh foods are covered by the rules except temporary menu items, daily specials, and the like. The information posted on the menu board must include a calorie count that clearly corresponds to a specific item, as well as "a statement that puts the calorie information in the context of a total daily caloric intake."

Interestingly, the FDA has also addressed what I've dubbed the "Chipotle Complex" - use of a huge calorie range. The new rules require that calorie counts be posted in 10-calorie increments in dishes above 50 calories. This may be the most helpful improvement to menu labeling, if implemented consistently - it is not particularly helpful to know that your burrito contains something between 500 and 950 calories.

The full text of the FDA proposed rules is fairly accessible - unlike most FDA documentation, it is in question-and-answer format and easy to read. And they want to hear your take on the new regulations - check out their website to provide feedback electronically.

I see the new regulations as progress, so long as institutions are truthful and consistent in their labeling. Additional information can help interested consumers make healthier decisions, and neutral eaters can simply ignore the extra signage. What do you think, folks? Will you be happy or upset to see calorie counts at your local chain?


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