Dick Groves
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Nutrition Labeling On Menus: Too Many Negatives

The US Food and Drug Administration last week released a final rule requiring, among other things, that calorie information be listed on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments, and that these covered establishments also make written nutrition information available for consumers who ask to see it.

Our initial reaction to this rule is that its costs will exceed its benefits.

As reported on our front page last week, FDA’s final rule will apply to restaurants and similar retail food establishments. That means a retail establishment that offers for sale “restaurant-type food,” and will include, among other establishments, convenience stores, delis, foodservice vendors such as ice cream shops, food take-out and/or delivery establishments (such as pizza establishments), grocery stores, and quick service and table service restaurants.

A separate final rule released by FDA last week requires calorie declarations for food sold from certain vending machines.

Certainly there are some positive aspects to FDA’s final rule requiring calorie information for restaurant-type foods. Among other things, it eliminates the possibility that various states and other jurisdictions will pass
separate and different laws requiring some form of nutrition information in restaurants.

That’s one reason why the National Restaurant Association supported the final rule.

But there are a couple of pretty big negatives with this final rule. Both of these negatives were brought to light in comments provided by Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Wootan called menu labeling “the biggest advance in providing nutrition information to consumers since the law that required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods was implemented 20 years ago.” That’s an interesting and not very positive endorsement.

Yes, it’s been over 20 years since the Nutrition Facts label became mandatory on most packaged food products. And what’s been arguably the biggest (pardon the expression) story related to the food business over the past 20 years? The rising incidence of obesity and overweight.

Are these two things — mandatory Nutrition Facts labels and rising obesity — related? Maybe. We’ve been highly critical of the Nutrition Facts label over the years because of its emphasis on nutrients to avoid — such as dietary fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol — and its lack of emphasis on nutrients to encourage, such as calcium, protein, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, riboflavin and zinc.

So it’s disturbing to note that FDA’s final rule requires that covered establishments include the following nutrition information, among other things, in written form: total number of calories derived from the total fat; saturated fat; and cholesterol.

Listing the total number of calories derived from the total fat is such a bad idea that, when FDA proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label earlier this year, it proposed to no longer require, and to not even allow voluntarily, the declaration of “Calories from fat.” So why the heck is the agency now requiring that information about calories from total fat be provided by restaurants?

Another interesting comment made by Wootan was that requiring restaurant menus to carry calorie information is going to be “an incentive for restaurant chains to innovate and offer consumers healthier choices.”

There are a couple of problems with that point. First, what exactly is a “healthier” choice? As noted in this space a few months ago (for more details, please see “Focus On So-Called ‘Healthy’ Foods Is Kind Of Sickening,” in our August 1st issue), just because foods are deemed “healthy” by the federal government or others doesn’t make them healthy. Just to cite one example: obesity rates have risen steadily since the federal government and others concluded that whole milk is a less-healthy alternative to lowfat or fat-free milk.

Second, can we now expect restaurants to make the same or similar changes to their food and beverage offerings as food manufacturers did to their offerings after the Nutrition Facts label became mandatory? If so, is that really a good thing?

After all, among other things that have happened in the wake of the mandatory Nutrition Facts label, food processors have replaced the fats in some of their products with such ingredients as sugar and refined grains. This makes for a better Nutrition Facts panel (because calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol numbers are all lower), but not for a more nutritious food.

Again, the evidence can be seen in the rising incidence of obesity and overweight in the US over the past couple of decades.

Finally, we can’t help but be bothered by the sheer complexity of FDA’s final rules. The version of the menu labeling rule released last week runs some 395 pages.

Just the items that FDA had to define are complicated: the section that includes comments and FDA’s response on the proposed definition of terms related to foods covered by the rule includes the following sections: restaurant food and restaurant-type food, standard menu item, combination meal, variable menu item, food on display, self-service food, custom order, daily special, food that is part of a customary market test, and temporary menu item.

FDA might have the best of intentions with these final rules for restaurant-type and vending machine foods, but if the Nutrition Facts label experience is any indication, the rules will end up doing more harm than good. DG. DG


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