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TOM KEANE

FDA’s new calorie rules won’t change our diets

(istockphoto/globe staff illustration)

Good news! The obesity crisis is over. A world of thinness, health, and vibrant living awaits — all thanks to your federal government. The Food and Drug Administration has just issued new rules requiring pretty much all of the restaurants we frequent — which is to say, chains — prominently post the calorie count of the dishes and drinks they serve.

Here’s a safe bet. Ten years from now, we’ll all be just as fat as ever. Or if not, the FDA’s new calorie-counting regulations will have nothing to do with it.

I know what you’re saying: “But Tom, I had no idea that a Friendly’s Forbidden Fudge Brownie Sundae has 970 calories! Until the FDA came along, I thought it was dietetic.”

Exactly. You knew the calorie count was up there. And you ordered it anyway. You just didn’t care, or perhaps you figured that you’d work it off with those supposedly daily trips to the gym that somehow occur at best once a week.

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And if you did care, you didn’t need the feds to tell you. Many chains happily provide nutritional information and even if they don’t, a simple Internet search will give you the answers. The biggest impediment to eating right, quite frankly, isn’t that we’re ignorant about the facts.

I’ll admit, though, that sometimes calorie counts can surprise. New York City was one of the first jurisdictions to require restaurants display calories on their menu. I remember tucking into a steak and salad at a Manhattan Morton’s (and no, I wasn’t paying). A half-pound porterhouse? About 640 calories. But my iceberg lettuce salad? 770.

That’s when I gave up vegetables.

The FDA’s rules — required by Obamacare, by the way — come after a protracted process that saw more than a thousand comments and numerous revisions. Chains are covered, as well as movie theaters, vending machines, and grocery stores. Calories have to be posted. Other nutritional information needs to be available on request.

Those in favor of the new rules argue that with the information in front of them, consumers will make better decisions. I may walk into McD’s planning on a Bacon Clubhouse Burger, but when I see it has 720 calories, I’ll recoil, picking instead, say, a 480-calorie Grilled McWrap Chicken and Bacon.

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Nice theory. But it doesn’t appear to happen.

In 2009, a year after New York began requiring labeling, researchers examined buying habits at restaurants in mostly low-income neighborhoods. More than a quarter of those surveyed said the food labeling law “influenced their choices.” Hurrah! But then they looked at what people actually bought, and nothing had changed. In other words, folks were lying! As the report drily observed, “Calorie information on menus appears to increase awareness of calorie content, but not necessarily the number of calories people purchase.” A second study came to the same conclusion — “no overall decline in calories purchased” — but, oddly, did find cuts at some chains (such as KFC) while at others (Subway) calorie consumption actually increased.

New York’s no outlier, either. After Seattle started to require nutrition labeling, researchers from Duke University examined purchases from a chain called Taco Time, concluding the “average calories per transaction were unaffected by the menu labeling.” On the other hand, a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research did find that Starbucks customers, at least, appeared to cut their calories — but by only 6 percent.

Why, you wonder, don’t people do what’s good for them? It’s the old cliché: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Couple that with two other factors. First, after a while we become inured to information. Sulfites in wine? Tobacco causes cancer? Now we just ignore those warnings. Then too, one wonders whether calorie counting is a little bit last decade. Isn’t it carbs that really matter? No big deal. It’s not like we’d pay attention to those labels either.

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Related:

11/25: Prepared-food sellers must soon post calorie counts

7 changes to expect with the new calorie label law

Editorial: Is that soda worth a 5-mile walk?


Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.