How to Watch Calorie Counts When You Eat Out

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How to Watch Calorie Counts When You Eat Out

How to Watch Calorie Counts When You Eat Out © Dean Belcher/Stone/Getty Images Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

If you were hoping to learn the calorie count for the pepperoni pizza on the menu at one of New York City's chain pizzerias next week, you might be out of luck.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) filed court papers on Monday in support of a lawsuit led by food industry groups such as the National Association of Convenience Stores. The suit seeks to block a local rule that requires New York City chain restaurants and food retailers to clearly post calorie and other nutritional information on menus and displays. 

The New York City calorie labeling rules technically went into effect on May 22, but the city was refraining from fining restaurants that did not comply until August 21. If the suit is successful, New York City may not be able to enforce its rules until they become law for the rest of the country. Some chains in New York City had already been voluntarily including calorie counts on menus, and some plan to continue to do so. 

This past May, the FDA had postponed the national law for another year until May, 2018. This action was primarily driven by pressure from pizza delivery chains such as Domino’s Pizza and trade groups representing convenience stores and independent grocers, according to Chuck Bell, programs director for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. And Bell sees the FDA's new involvement in the New York City case as a setback.

"It’s surprising and unfortunate that FDA would spend time and money trying to block New York City’s calorie count law," says Bell, "when the FDA still hasn't fulfilled its responsibility to implement the federal law requiring calorie count menu labeling in all 50 states."

In a statement issued yesterday by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, health commissioner Mary T. Bassett expressed disappointment in the agency's interest in opposing the NYC rule.

"Though chain restaurants in New York City have been providing this information for nearly 10 years...the FDA has taken the position that chains can stop providing customers with critical nutrition information," Bassett said. "New Yorkers shouldn’t have to wait and see if the FDA decides to enforce menu labeling nationally."

The FDA said in an email that it supports blocking the New York City rule because it would create confusion and added costs for consumers if it was fully implemented before the national rules go into effect next year. "The FDA takes seriously our obligation to ensure that food is labeled in a manner that provides Americans with consistent, clear, and science based information to make healthy choices about their diets," the FDA said. However, according to a New York City press release, both rules are identical.

Here’s what you need to know about how the FDA’s decision will affect you, and what you can do right now to make healthy choices when eating out. 

Under the federal rule, sit-down and fast-food restaurants, amusement parks, bakeries, coffee shops, delis, drive-throughs, grocery stores, ice cream stores, movie theaters, take-out and delivery chains, and self-serve buffets would be required to list the calorie counts for meals, snacks, and in some cases alcohol.

In April, the National Grocers Association and NACS—the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing—filed a petition with the FDA, seeking a delay. They say the regulation would burden foodsellers financially and needs to be reevaluated.

“Implementation of this regulation represents one of the costliest regulations for the supermarket industry with estimates exceeding $1 billion for our industry alone,” Greg Ferrara, a spokesman for the National Grocers Association, wrote in an email.

A representative from Domino's Pizza noted that the chain already provides calorie information where it’s most appropriate for their customers.

“We do have the information online, which is what we've been fighting for, as 90 percent of our orders come from outside the stores,” Tim McIntyre, a spokesperson for Domino’s Pizza, wrote in an email.

On the flip side, the National Restaurant Association, an industry group representing restaurant businesses, is in favor of the labeling law. A number of chains support it as well.

“We strongly believe the national menu labeling regulation is an important and necessary step both for our industry and for the consumer,” a spokesperson for Dunkin’ Brands Group, which represents Baskin Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts, said in an email, “and one that is long overdue.”   

Bell calls the FDA delay in May an unfortunate blow. While there is debate about how much menu calorie counts affect consumer choice, “obesity and diabetes are at record highs in the country, and this would have been a very straightforward and low-cost measure to help consumers manage their own dietary habits and intake,” says Bell. “People have a right to compare their menu options side by side and make an informed decision.”

Even though the labeling rule is on hold for now, you can find calorie counts for some chains and in some areas.  

Certain states and cities, for example, such as California, Philadelphia, and Vermont, already have their own mandatory labeling laws.

In addition, some nationwide chains, such as Baskin Robbins, Carl’s Jr., Chick-fil-A, Dunkin' Donuts, Jamba Juice, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Starbucks, and Subway voluntarily list calories on their in-store menus and menu boards. Representatives for 7-Eleven say they plan to start calorie-count labeling, but didn't specify when.

Many chains also offer calorie info online or have printed charts or lists of nutrition information on their premises. If you don't spot calorie counts on a menu board or menu, suggests Bell, ask for them.

To see how some items served by 11 national chains stack up in terms of calorie counts, check out the chart below (all information was gathered from the chains' websites):  

Whether you're visiting a chain or an independent eatery, take the following four steps to help keep calories in check when dining out.

Watch out for meal deals. All-you-can eat buffets and fast food combos provide bang for your buck, but the calories can add up quickly, notes the American Heart Association.

Make smart swaps. If you order a high-calorie entrée that’s paired with unhealthy sides, ask to make healthier substitutions, such as fruit or a salad instead of fries, or water instead of soda. “The idea isn’t to deprive yourself, but to balance out a less healthy entrée with a few healthier items on the side,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports dietitian.

Avoid the cheesy, creamy, and saucy. Items with cheese or a heavy or creamy sauce are likely to be loaded with calories, fat, and sodium, says dietitian Maxine Siegel, R.D., head of the Consumer Reports food testing lab. Request sauces and dressings on the side, and use just a bit. And choose grilled over fried or breaded items.

Load up on veggies. The occasional deli meat sandwich or burger is fine, but processed and red meats shouldn’t be on your daily menu. Choose salads and other veggie-heavy meals as often as possible when eating at a chain. These will not only keep calorie (and sodium) counts down, says Siegel, but will help you get the recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2017, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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