Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The proliferation of calorie disclosures

In one of my recent posts, I mentioned that calorie declarations for restaurant items were beginning to show up on TV and in web based ads. It appears that the industry is gearing up for the calorie disclosure mandate that goes into effect this December (see the Final Rules for ACA sect 4205[1]).  I have noticed that up-front calorie disclosures are becoming more prevalent in grocery stores as well.

The grocery store calorie proliferation is likely due to several factors, including the Affordable Care Act’s wide reaching mandate. Food manufacturers began adding front of pack labels some years ago (with declarations THEY are comfortable with, i.e., not every manufacturer includes calories or sugar amounts on the front of every one of their products), but one voluntary version Facts Up Front does provide info on calories and select nutrients, and it has potential.  If you click on the link above, you can scroll through some of the examples. As an example, I have noticed that most sliced bread brands have Facts Up Front labels now - with the calories displayed - but BE CAREFUL sometimes its calories per 2 slices and sometimes per 1 slice. The Institute of Medicine has recommended a standardized, mandatory front of pack label with an interpretive design, for example, 3 stars vs 1 star (I wrote about this recommendation a few years ago).  I believe that the more customers see calorie disclosures, the more they will demand them - up-front.  (The new calorie disclosure law is about ready-to-eat foods at grocery stores, restaurants and similar establishments, not packaged foods. But again, people are now expecting to see calories more easily because of laws like this.)

One of the issues in labeling, especially for packaged or self-serving foods (e.g., ice cream), is a push to present easily, or commonly, understood serving sizes.  The serving sizes (usually) accompany the calorie counts on front labels, e.g., half a cup, 2 tablespoons. I think it would be a disservice to customers, however, not to also include the weight in grams or number of ounces of that particular ½-cup or tablespoon; a ½- cup of one item may not be commensurate with ½ a cup of another item.  Recently, I was choosing between cookie brands. For each brand, the calorie amount per 3-cookie serving was 130, but the serving for one brand had 20 grams and the other had 30 grams, so in essence, I would get to eat MORE food for the same calories if I chose the heavier product. I owe my ‘per unit’ calorie comparisons to lessons I have gleaned from using UPC shelf labels, price per ounce, as I’ve mentioned in the past. 

I think that emphasizing serving size can also be context specific.  One place it makes sense for the majority of people to see calories per serving ‘size’ instead of serving ‘weight’ is the vending machine.  I say this because, the usual serving size of a snack purchased from a vending machine, or the amount customarily consumed, is the whole package. The package is the serving size.  Most people intend to eat all the M&MS, Fritos, or Lays, so by scanning across all products and knowing how many cals per pack, a person can, if they choose, pick the lowest calorie package and be done with it.  (In time, I suspect, savvy customers will figure out that even here, they can get more or less calories per package based on weight/volume.)

So that is very cool.  Calories are showing up more (this is good for people who are trying to limit calories or who simply want to choose items with fewer calories - can’t do it if you don’t know the numbers!).  The national law (again see ACA section 4205) covers more than foods – restaurant chains under the laws jurisdiction will also have to display calories for their alcoholic beverages!  Not the gin and tonic you order at the bar, but the Bahama Mama or Margarita from places like Red Lobster and Chili’s.  This is one place that the restaurant industry in general, is not giving us a prelude with its on line menus.  I went to the websites of more than 10 restaurant chains while writing this blog, and only one, Red Lobster, had its alcoholic beverage calories posted. Some of these drinks have more calories than my meals; I expect many drinks will be reformulated when the law goes into effect.  If you want to get an idea, check out Red Lobster’s menu – see page 2. Else, stick with lighter beers and wine or traditional drinks, gin and tonic should have about 100 calories as does my favorite Dee Dee Sour (Seagram’s seven and Fresca).  BTW, the Red Lobster  Caramel appletini has 160 cals and the chocolate martini has 330 – how could anyone know this without a calorie disclosure on the menu, when you are ordering?  Unless of course, it’s that ONE day a year when none of this matters (smile face!)

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