Calorie Counts are Coming Soon to a Menu Near You

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pizzaThat thick, juicy slice of deep-dish bacon cheeseburger pizza might look pretty tasty until you learn it has an unappetizing 450 calories.

Under new federal regulations expected to take effect in mid-2012, this calorie-count sticker shock will show up on menus and packages for some of your favorite meals and snacks at chain restaurants, bakeries, convenience and grocery stores, coffee shops and vending machines.

But some food operations aren’t waiting until next year and are already complying, and others that will be exempt from the new regulations are voluntarily adding nutrition information.

While companies are having to embrace the regulations and cover the costs, some observers aren’t expecting people’s eating habits to change much.

“It helps them make an educated choice,” said Michele Schmal, vice president of the research organization NPD Group. “But I don’t think it is going to make Americans a lot skinnier. Consumers have a tendency to go back to their old ways.”

Still, regulators say the labeling changes are the right thing to do.

“What we are finding is more and more people are eating out, (and) they want clear, easy-to-understand nutrition labels,” said Michael Herndon, spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The proposed rule changes, officially called the Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments, are part of the omnibus health care reform law that was signed last year.

The labeling changes would require food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calories on menus and menu boards. Upon request, customers also would have access to other nutritional information such as trans fat and sodium content. Additionally, calorie counts would be published on take-out menus, direct marketing materials and delivery menus, and even on Internet menus if that is one of the primary ways for customers to order.

Currently, the proposal does not include movie theaters, amusement parks, airlines, hotels, sports stadiums and other establishments whose primary purpose is something other than selling food, or where less than 50 percent of the floor space is for the sale of food.

The FDA published the proposed changes April 6 and will take comments covering most food establishments until June 6. The regulations are expected to be approved at the end of the year, and operations will have six months to comply. Compliance would cost more than $315 million nationwide, with ongoing costs of more than $44 million, or about $1,100 per restaurant or grocery store, according to the FDA.

Despite the costs, the National Restaurant Association and many major restaurant chains are backing the new regulation, figuring it will override a host of inconsistent local and state regulations. The association is asking for a year for restaurants to comply, instead of the proposed six months, figuring it would be more cost-effective to add nutritional information as restaurants roll out new menus in the regular course of business rather than create new menus just for the nutritional labels.

Pizza places are concerned about compliance, saying that with the different crusts, sizes, sauces and toppings, there can be many combinations. Some pizza operations say most of their customers won’t even see the in-store information.

At Domino’s Pizza, for example, only about 10 percent of its customers actually place an order in the store, the company said. The majority order over the phone or the Internet.

“The FDA wants to require our franchisees to calorie-label in-store menu boards, which will cost each store thousands of dollars every year,” said Tim McIntyre, spokesman for Domino’s. “Instead, online access allows people to get the information anytime they want from anywhere they’re ordering. We think that makes more sense.”

For example, Domino’s Cal-O-Meter adjusts up or down as customers select toppings — 450 for a slice of the Deep Dish Cheeseburger Fiesta, though customers can knock off 100 calories by choosing thin crust. Pick a slice of thin-crust Pacific Veggie and you’ll get just 230 calories.

While Domino’s is a global business, it is mostly made up of small, family-owned operations.

The average Domino’s franchisee owns four stores, and half of its U.S. operators only own one store. But because they are part of a chain, they must comply with the new regulations. The smaller franchises will also be competing against independent operators who won’t have to spend the money, McIntyre said.

“We don’t think the one-size-fits-all approach works,” he said.

Nutritional labels have long been required on the back or side of many package foods such as breads, cereals, canned and frozen goods, snacks, desserts and drinks. But grocery store and convenience store “home meal replacement” items like chicken wings, salads and deli sandwiches have been exempt. This will change next year.

As more and more people seek healthier selections, some area grocers and restaurants are voluntarily making changes.

Associated Wholesale Grocers, a grocery store co-op based in Kansas City, Kan., will roll out front-of-pack information on two of its private brands — Best Choice and Always Save — probably in October. So instead of seeing calorie counts in small print on the back of a can of beans, potential buyers will see the information in a bigger font on the front.

The two brands have 3,000 different products, including cheeses, baking goods, cake mixes, flours, juices and canned goods. The private brands are sold in 2,500 stores in 24 states, including Price Chopper, Hen House, Sun Fresh, Apple Market, Thriftway and Country Mart.

“I think it’s our job to figure out a way to showcase healthy foods, and education is part of it,” said John Cosentino, vice president of Cosentinos Food Stores Inc., an AWG member with 25 grocery stores.

Spin Neapolitan Pizza, with four area locations, also will not be required to comply with the proposed regulations. Still, it plans to start posting nutritional breakdowns on its standard menu items in about a month.

“We’ve had so many people asking for it, about 20 a week, mostly for calories or Weight Watchers,” said Gail Lozoff, a partner in Spin.

Some national chains are at the forefront. Panera Bread restaurants have been posting calorie counts on menu boards since November. Hy-Vee is working on labels for meat that it packages per customer request.

Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, applauds the new efforts. Consumers, he said, will be able to put calorie counts in context, so they might not blow their daily allotment all on breakfast, and they might see that an order of french fries has more calories than a small hamburger.

Restaurants also may add to the healthier options, competing on the basis of nutrition as well as price, Cronin said.

Still, once people see the number of calories in their favorite foods, will they make healthier choices?

A study by Mintel found customers felt better about themselves when they went to restaurants perceived as “healthier” even if they went ahead and ate the less-healthy items. Many of the people surveyed complained that food just didn’t taste as good without added sugar, sodium and fat. The label mandate won’t include limited-time offers, so restaurants may sneak in seasonal menu items that are less healthy so customers can treat themselves without the guilt.

Another study by the NPD Group showed adults on average ate 1,021 calories during a meal without the labels, but 901 calories when calorie counts were posted. They tended to give up items like french fries and carbonated soft drinks.

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.