Sometime soon, many restaurants will be required to share more information about the food they serve. Chain restaurants with more than 20 locations across the county will have to start listing the number of calories in their food under rules being developed by the Food and Drug Administration. Federal regulators are hoping more information will help people make healthier choices.
The Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress in 2010, started the process by calling for calorie numbers on menus. The final rules from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are expected by the end of the year. New menus could be in place by mid-2012.
The rule will affect several Nebraska based restaurant chains, including Amigos with 29 locations in the state. Jan Moore co-founded Amigos with her husband Roger 31 years ago. They serve tacos, burritos, burgers and fries. Calorie counts have been calculated for most items on the Amigos menu with help from a lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But what customers actually order can be more complicated than what appears on the menu.
"It would make a difference if it's French fries or mexi-fries in our restaurant," Jan Moore said. "Then also it makes a difference if it's a diet drink or a regular drink. Then we have people who add sour cream, hold sour cream."
These are the kinds of things the FDA is still working to clear up. Dan Roehl, senior director of government relations for the National Restaurant Association, says restaurants have been asking how to make their unique menus fit with nationwide regulations.
"You have to deal with how you label pizzas that have 34 million different combinations," Roehl said. "It really does become a fairly complex undertaking, especially if the goal is to try and provide information to customers in a way that it would be usable to them."
Restaurant operators are also wondering who will be in charge of making sure restaurants are making changes and being honest with their calorie numbers. According to Roehl, the FDA may take up that responsibility with a system of spot-checking different restaurant chain locations. It is also possible the job might go to local public health departments as part of routine health inspections.
Questions also remain about exactly how calories must be presented on the menus. In initial proposals, FDA simply states says the calorie numbers need to be clear and conspicuous. For smaller chains like Amigos, Jan Moore said it can be a challenge to keep up with last-minute details.
"If you have 500 restaurants, it's going to cost you a lot less per restaurant to get the information you need," Moore said. "And you need to compete in every way with restaurants of other sizes, so it's just something we need to do."
Staggering rates of obesity across the country are part of the reason for pushing calorie labels at this time. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports almost 34 percent of all adults in the U.S. are obese; Nebraska's rate is 27 percent. To keep from gaining weight, most people need to stick to 2,000 calories per day, but diners often have trouble keeping to that suggestion, according to Christina Roberto of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
"People have a really hard time estimating the calories in restaurant food," Roberto said. "We know when people eat out they tend to eat foods that are higher in calories. The foods tend to be of poor nutritional quality. They're served in really large portions, and we know that that promotes overeating."
The most popular menu choice at Amigos is the soft taco. The combo with a soft taco, a 20-ounce Pepsi and mexi-fries, which are like tater tots, adds up to 1,100 calories. Currently, that information is online, but not on the menu. But after it's posted on the menu, big changes in eating habit are not necessarily likely to follow. Some studies demonstrate that menu labels can have a big impact, while others only show a slight difference.
"But when you're thinking about a public health problem, even if you have part of the population doing that it, (that) can really have a meaningful impact," Roberto said.
And after calories appear on the menu, consumers may not be the only ones expected to reexamine their habits. Restaurants might also decide to cut back.
"Some of these chain restaurants, in particular, have menu items that are your whole day's worth of calories - 2,000 calories for an appetizer or side dish," Roberto said. "We're already seeing Cheesecake Factory announcing a Skinnylicious menu, Olive Garden saying they're going to bring the calorie counts down in their foods."
Amigos started its Fiesta Fit menu last year. Moore said she senses a more lasting focus on healthier eating may be setting in with her customers.
"The public responded, and they sold well enough that we kept them on our menu," Moore said. "So more than ever the public is responding and concerned. How much it affects their buying patterns is hard to say."
Consumers will eventually have the numbers in front of them, but it will still be their choice whether to add them up.