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FDA Mandates Calorie Counts for Restaurants, Coffee Shops, Convenience Stores Nationwide

But will it help fight America's obesity epidemic?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Four years ago, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law and within it contained the requirement — meant to curb the tide on the nation's obesity epidemic — that menus at chain restaurants list the number of calories in each item. Since then, dozens of chains have preemptively redesigned menu boards to include calorie counts. Today, the FDA released the full set of regulations, and they are far more reaching than many expected.

All chain restaurants with 20 or more locations must now include calorie counts on their menus, including sit-down establishments like The Cheesecake Factory and supposed health-focused restaurants like West Coast-based The Veggie Grill. It was previously thought that sit-down, dine-in restaurants would be exempt from the law.

Much to the consternation of the pizza lobby, all pizza chains, including those specializing in delivery, are required to list calorie counts. Also included:

  • All restaurants with a drive-thru window
  • All chains that offer take-out
  • Ice cream from ice cream shops; milkshakes and sundaes too
  • Made-to-order food, including sandwiches, ordered from a menu or menu board at a deli or grocery store
  • Any self-serve food from a hot or cold buffet, such as Whole Foods hot buffet and salad bars
  • Pastries offered at chain coffee shops
  • Popcorn at movie theaters or amusement parks

Hot dogs and Slurpees from stores like 7-Eleven, and similar offerings from all convenience stores with more than 20 locations, are also included in the law. If it's prepared or heated and served on-site, it must be labeled with a calorie count. Food sold in vending machines also falls under the new guidelines.

And in a first, alcoholic beverages — including those massive mixed drinks at Chili's — that appear on menus at tables must include calorie counts. The FDA told the New York Times, "[b]everages served in food establishments that are on menus and menu boards will be included, but a mixed drink at a bar will not."

Health experts like Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are pleased, "This is one of the most important public health nutrition policies ever to be passed nationally." Marion Nestle, a longtime champion of nutrition policy and calorie counts on menus also approves. "I'm amazed," she told the Times, "it never occurred to me that alcohol would make it in."

Author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food) also approved of the sweeping new measures:

But chefs like José Andrés question the law's efficacy and expense:

Indeed, studies pointed at flaws in the regulations as early as a year ago. A study published earlier this year found that listing exercise required rather than calories to be ingested had a more obvious effect on consumption. Meanwhile, lobbyists are gearing up for a long fight before the rules take effect next year.