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Requiring restaurants, vending machines to share nutritional information

This day and age, Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home. We’re always on the go and convenience plays a big part in what we choose to eat. That also means that we often don’t make the best choices when we’re hungry or in a hurry, and the options that are available may not be the healthiest.

Enter the FDA. New regulations have been established requiring restaurants and vending machines to publish nutritional information for what they sell. (Restaurants have the next year to comply with regulations while vending machines have the next two years.) And this is not in some obscure spot on the hamburger wrapper, but front and center when you open your menu or look at the menu board.

Where will you see this?

These regulations cover “restaurant-type foods” at establishments that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations. “Restaurant-type foods” includes sit-down meals, takeout, drive-thru, delis, salad/food bars, bakeries, movie theaters, convenience stores, and alcoholic beverages. (This doesn’t include foods purchased at the grocery store.) Vending machines included in these regulations are must be from companies that operate over 20 machines.

What are they going to tell me?

Calorie information for standard menu items is required to be displayed on menus and menu boards. For vending machines, calorie information may be on a sign near the food or machine button. Other nutrient information — total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein — will have to be made available in writing on request, and establishments need to have a displayed statement to this effect.

Why do you want to know this?

Knowledge is power! As a dietitian, I always recommend that families eat at home as much as possible. You inevitably consume many more calories, fats, and sugars when eating away from home. However, I also don’t live under a rock — I recognize that we all lead busy lives and when we’re transporting kids to sporting events, recitals or family gatherings, there will be eating on the go. So let’s try another tactic to help people eat healthier when it does happen.

The new regulations are an excellent step forward in educating consumers. I was recently in Chicago to have lunch with my mother when we stopped at a chain restaurant called Cosi. It already had its caloric information displayed on the menu boards, and my mother was able to use that to narrow down her options to what sounded good, and then make a conscious decision to pick the item with fewer calories. Imagine if a whole country of people started doing that — we’d be on the road to a healthier America.

I do have to add a small disclaimer that there are obviously some groups of people where this could be less beneficial — those who struggle with eating disorders or our malnourished elderly population. However, even in those situations, people will be better able to make informed decisions. I’ll be very interested to see how consumers respond to this information and only hope that it makes a positive impact.