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Federal menu labeling rules aim to help Americans count calories

A portion of a drive thru menu panel featuring Happy Meals is seen at a McDonald's Restaurant in Ridgeland, Mississippi, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

WASHINGTON — Whether you grab a bite to eat at a convenience store or you’re enjoying a burrito bowl from a fast-casual chain, you’ll know how many calories you’re consuming with federal menu labeling laws in effect this month.

Though a number of leading restaurant chains have already included calorie labeling on their menus, food chains in the U.S. with 20 or more locations must now post calories on their menus.

“[The] FDA’s new policy aims to provide all Americans with easier access to nutritious, affordable foods by arming consumers with information and encouraging the food industry to innovate in producing the healthier foods that today’s informed consumer wants,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement last week when the new rules kicked in.

According to the FDA, Americans eat and drink a third of their calories away from home.

“This is significant because there’ll be calorie labeling in lots of other places,” Dr. Vivica Kraak, a nutrition specialist at Virginia Tech, told WTOP.

“Not only the quick-service chains and fast-casuals like Panera and Chipotle, but movie theaters, convenient stores, delis and supermarkets where people buy a lot of their food. So it will make a difference to help address the obesity epidemic in the United States,” Kraak said.

While some are skeptical of whether such regulations would tackle the problem of unhealthy eating in the U.S., Kraak said she is a believer of using “choice architecture” to change people’s behaviors, and noted that restaurant chains have also taken steps to create healthier choices.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction but the restaurants could voluntarily make a lot more comprehensive, synergistic changes and I think they’ll be good role models for some of the smaller, independent restaurant chains that have not yet done this,” Kraak said.

She added that the U.S. joins Australia as being one of the few countries that require national calorie labeling; most countries have voluntary labeling.

“So it’s a big different when all the chain restaurants have to comply with this to show that information to consumers so they can make informed choices,” Kraak said.

Dr. Vivica Kraak speaks about new calorie labeling law

WTOP's Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard

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