National Consumers League

Counting calories? New lawsuit will make restaurants show you the stats


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Peter Lehner is Senior Strategic Advisor at Earthjustice. He directs the sustainable food and farming program, developing strategies to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food and to promote a more environmentally sound agricultural system.

How many calories are in a burger with a side of onion rings? About 80 percent of Americans would like to know, and food retailers were supposed to start telling them—until the Trump administration decided to allow the industry to delay another year.

Yesterday, we pushed back. Earthjustice, on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Consumers League, is now challenging this illegal delay in court.

In 2014, the FDA announced that chain restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and similar food retailers would need to make calorie counts and other nutritional information available to consumers, and gave the industry one year to comply.  Since then, the deadline for compliance has been delayed three times. Meanwhile, several cities and counties instituted their own nutrition labeling requirements, so even the National Restaurant Association supported the move to a uniform, national standard. Yet, one day before the rule was to become enforceable in May, the Trump administration arbitrarily—and illegally—delayed it for another year.

More wait equals more weight. Allowing industry to keep consumers in the dark about nutritional information contributes to the obesity epidemic in America.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, and eating out is a significant factor in this health crisis. On average, Americans eat one-third of their calories away from home, and studies show that people tend to consume more calories and saturated fat—but fewer fruits and whole grains—when eating out. In particular, children typically consume almost 55 percent more  calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant compared to a meal at home. 

Part of this unhealthy pattern is due to a lack of information. Not many people would realize (without consulting a company’s website) that Applebee’s Spinach and Artichoke Dip appetizer has 960 calories, more than twice as many calories as the Chicken Wonton Tacos appetizer (460 calories); or that a chocolate chip muffin from Whole Foods Market has 920 calories—nearly twice as many calories as a blueberry scone and almost half of a person’s suggested daily caloric intake. Even professional dieticians, when asked to estimate the calorie count of the previously mentioned burger with onion rings, underestimated by almost half.  (They guessed 865 calories—the real answer was 1550.)

Calories aren’t the only concern. Few would guess that some chain restaurant entrees have more than two-and-a-half times the daily maximum amount of sodium recommended for healthy adults. People with high blood pressure need to watch their sodium intake, while those with high cholesterol or heart disease are instructed to consume less saturated fat.  Many people with diabetes need to monitor their carbohydrate consumption to administer proper insulin dosages, and the federal government advises that we all cut back on saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium.  But without access to nutrition information, following such health guidelines is nearly impossible when eating out.

“Knowledge is power, and studies show that when consumers have nutrition information available, they use it—purchasing 150 fewer calories, on average, when this information is displayed.”

Knowledge is power, and studies show that when consumers have nutrition information available, they use it—purchasing 150 fewer calories, on average, when this information is displayed. The total calories purchased by New York City Starbucks customers decreased by 6 percent after a local menu labeling policy took effect. Considering that a relatively small energy imbalance can, over time, result in obesity, these differences are critical. Even the FDA concluded that a uniform, national nutrition labeling requirement could save between $3.7 and $10.7 billion over 20 years.

Research also shows us that when restaurants have to be more transparent about what’s in their food, they start to offer healthier options. In King County, Washington, chain restaurants decreased the calorie content of their entrée items by an average of 41 calories each after a local law requiring nutrition labeling took effect. Another study found that the number of healthier menu items increased from 13 to 20 percent at fast-food chains subject to nutrition labeling requirements. 

There’s an environmental benefit to nutrition labels as well. By encouraging smaller portions, nutrition labeling can help reduce the amount of food waste in landfills, which release climate-polluting methane gas and also contribute to air and water pollution. Since 40 percent of food in the United States ends up in landfills — much of it from restaurants — reducing this food waste can have significant environmental benefits.

Delaying the labeling requirement one day before it was supposed to become enforceable, and without an opportunity for public comment in advance, is illegal. By denying the public access to vital health information, the Trump FDA is once again taking the side of big business over the public’s right to know. We are living in the age of big data, where every aspect of our lives can be measured in excruciating detail. We can count the number of steps we take and the number of minutes we sleep—shouldn’t we have basic health information about our food?