New FDA rule on calorie labeling may not go far enough

On May 5, a new FDA rule that requires calorie information to be listed on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations, goes into effect.

According to Deborah A. Cohen, MD, MPH, senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, there are other approaches that should be considered.

Deborah Cohen
Deborah A. Cohen

“It would be much more effective, in my view, to set standard portion sizes than require calorie labeling. They could also establish standards for bundled meals, so that all meals sold as a package meet ‘MyPlate’ standards, for example,” Cohen told Healio Family Medicine. “This would eliminate the unhealthy combos of burgers, fries and soda. If people wanted unhealthy combinations, they should order them a la carte.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, MyPlate is the national food guidance symbol based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Cohen recently published a study that suggested many fast food options for children exceed calorie recommendations.

“The FDA should address portion sizes, since this is a matter that individuals have difficulty doing for themselves,” she continued. “When people are served more than they need, they eat more than they should. Eating more calories than is burned in physical activity and normal growth and development is the fundamental underlying cause of obesity. People need benchmarks to help them moderate their food consumption.”

Cohen said even with the new rules, primary care physicians should continue to discuss the risks from eating fast foods with their patients, and offered some suggestions for broaching the subject.

“Physicians should still find a way to counsel patients about the risks of eating too much, especially low nutrient foods,” she said. “A health care provider can inquire as to how often children eat away from home. They can recommend children stay away from sugary beverages and fries. And when it comes to sugary desserts, they should caution parents to get small quantities — and limit the frequency.”

According to the FDA, about one-third of calorie consumption by Americans occurs away from home. The agency also cited data that said Americans tend to eat less nutritiously when dining out. 

The new regulations requiring calorie labeling were first announced in 2014, when then-FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, explained that the rules ensured the public would have more information when making food choices.

Although restaurants are required to begin posting calorie information later this spring, certain products sold from glass-front vending machines may not have calorie labeling until July 26, 2018. - by Janel Miller


https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm436722.htm (accessed 04-20-17)

https://blogs.fda.gov/fdavoice/index.php/2014/11/providing-consumers-more-information-with-menu-and-vending-labeling/ (accessed 04-20-17)

https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ (accessed 04-20-17)

Disclosure: Cohen reports no relevant financial disclosures. Hamberg was commissioner of the FDA at the time of her remarks.