NEW YORK CITY – October 24, 2007 – The Board of Health today voted to solicit public comment on a new calorie posting proposal that would require chain restaurants to prominently display calorie information on their menus and menu boards. Providing customers with prominently displayed calorie information at the time of purchase will help guide informed and healthier food choices, an important step in addressing the obesity epidemic that now affects millions of New York City residents.
The new regulation would apply only to New York City chain restaurants that have 15 or more outlets nationwide, with menus and menu items that are standardized for content and portion size. The rule would cover about 10% of all New York City restaurants. A public hearing is scheduled for November 27, 2007, and the Board of Health is expected to vote on the measure in January. If adopted, the regulation would take effect on March 31, 2008. The proposal is available online at http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/notice/notice.shtml.
“Obesity and diabetes are the only major health problems that are getting worse, and getting worse rapidly,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, New York City Health Commissioner. “What people choose to eat and drink is of course entirely up to them. This measure will help people make more informed choices. Obesity and diabetes cause blindness, amputations, and tens of thousands of early deaths from strokes and heart attacks. Posting calorie information will help people make healthier choices about what to eat and drink – and live longer, healthier lives.”
An earlier calorie listing proposal, passed by the Board of Health in December 2006, was challenged in a lawsuit brought by the New York State Restaurant Association. In September 2007, a federal judge ruled that the previous regulation, as written, was preempted by federal regulations. But the judge affirmed the City’s authority to mandate posting of calorie information, stating the regulation would not be pre-empted if it applied to all chain restaurants with more than a certain number of outlets. The Health Department’s new proposal addresses this issue and updates the previous measure.
Chain restaurants play a significant role in the obesity problem. The proportion of calories Americans consume away from home doubled between 1977 and 1996. Besides eating out more often, we are eating ever-larger portions. Chain restaurants serve food that has been clearly associated with excess calories and obesity. Studies show that people who eat fast food regularly consume more calories than those who do not.
In a recent survey of more than 7,000 lunch patrons in chain restaurants, the Health Department found that a third of them had purchased items with more than 1,000 calories – half of a typical adult’s needed daily calorie need – in just one meal.
How many calories? It’s anybody’s guess.
Many chain restaurants already post calorie information on the Internet, in brochures, or on food wrappers or tray liners. But customers rarely see this information when they’re deciding what to buy. The Health Department survey showed that, excluding Subway patrons, 97% of customers saw no calorie information, either before or after their purchase.
“Chain restaurants are failing to inform consumers about the calorie content of their food,” said Dr. Frieden. “Although some chains claim they have worked hard to make calorie information available to customers, New Yorkers tell us that they did not see it. Without this information, people can’t make informed choices.”
When people lack calorie information, they tend to greatly underestimate calories. One study found that 9 out of 10 people underestimated the calorie content of less healthy meals – by an average of 600 calories.
For example, one chain offers a “Big Breakfast” (790 calories) and a “Deluxe Breakfast” (1,400 calories with syrup and butter). Without calorie information, few consumers would guess that a Big Breakfast contains slightly over half the calories of a Deluxe Breakfast. Or that a Deluxe Breakfast with a large orange juice (250 calories) packs nearly a full day’s worth of calories.
The Health Impact of Calorie Listing
When people have access to calorie information, they use it. Nearly three quarters of consumers say they look at calorie information on packaged foods in supermarkets, and about half say that nutrition information affects their food selections.
The same Health Department survey, done before the prior regulation was set to take effect, studied the impact of the Subway chain’s decision to post calorie information voluntarily on its deli cases, less prominently than the proposed rule requires. A third of customers – 10 times the proportion in other restaurants – reported seeing the information. What’s more, customers who saw the information bought 48 fewer calories on average than those who did not; those who reported using the information bought 92 fewer calories on average. The Health Department estimates that, if the same pattern held at every restaurant covered by the proposed regulation, its adoption would spare at least 150,000 people from obesity over the next five years, preventing more than 30,000 cases of diabetes.
For more information on the calorie listing proposal, please visit http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/notice/notice.shtml. To learn more about a healthy diet, physical activity or how to lose weight, please visit http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/public/dohmhnews6-05.pdf or http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/cdp/cdp_pan_know.shtml