Health Groups Urge Obamas: Don't Water Down Calorie Labeling Rules

Law Requires Calories at Chain Restaurants and All Similar Food Retailers


The nation's leading health and consumer organizations are calling on the Obama Administration to provide calorie labeling at chain movie theaters, supermarkets, and for alcoholic beverages, and to provide clear labeling for vending machines. If those are exempted, consumers would have no clue about the often-surprising calorie counts in buckets of movie theater popcorn, alcoholic drinks, and ready-to-eat food sold at supermarkets and convenience stores.

The 2010 health care reform law requires calorie labeling at all chain restaurants and "similar retail food establishments." In April 2011, the Food and Drug Administration proposed rules designed to implement that provision. However, those rules excluded chain movie theaters, hotels, stadiums, cafes in superstores, and other venues, even though they sell restaurant-type food. The proposed rules also would allow vending machine operators to provide calorie listings on hard-to-find, difficult-to-read posters rather than directly on vending machines near the item or its selection button as the law requires. And according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, those types of establishments are serving up lots of calories.

Theater-goers have no idea that, for instance, a medium tub of popcorn (without buttery topping) at Regal Cinemas has 1,200 calories, and a large soda from that chain has 500 calories. A large bag of Reese's Pieces candy has 1,160 calories. Theater chains Regal and AMC were CSPI's "nominees for Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic," when in 2009 the group released laboratory analyses of movie theater food.

A medium popcorn and large soda from Regal Cinemas

"Calorie labeling at chain restaurants and other food retailers will help Americans identify foods with fewer calories and reduce their risk of overweight and obesity," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "It would be a real setback if Americans were denied this important nutrition information at chain movie theaters, bars, and superstores. We hope the Administration changes course and includes those retailers as Congress intended."

Alcoholic beverages are the fifth-largest source of calories in adults' diets, and the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans specifically urges people to monitor their calorie intake from alcohol. A 5-ounce glass of wine has about 125 calories and a 12-ounce serving of beer has about 150 calories. But some of the concoctions served at chain restaurants have several times the calories of wine or beer. Romano's Macaroni Grill serves a Margarita Prima with 440 calories. An Ultimate Mudslide at T.G.I. Friday’s has 730 calories.

T.G.I. Friday's Berri Acai Sour (left, 170 cal) and the Triple Berri Passion (330 cal)

"Who would think that a single alcoholic drink at T.G.I. Friday’s would have more calories than its rib-eye with lobster dinner?" Wootan asks. "Or that its Triple Berry Passion cocktail (330 calories) has almost twice as many calories as the Berri Acai Sour (170 cal)?"

Restaurants that operate in New York City and Philadelphia are already required to list calories for alcoholic drinks; local laws also require movie theaters to list calories in New York City and California.

In a letter to the President and First Lady, officials from more than 20 of the nation's leading health and consumer groups also expressed concern about the Administration's interpretation of the law's requirement for vending machines. The law specifically requires vendors to "provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button." But the FDA's draft rules would allow posters next to or even above banks of vending machines, where the information would be largely invisible and useless to consumers.

While they are included in the proposed regulations, supermarkets and convenience stores are lobbying to get out of having to post calories for their restaurant-style, ready-to-eat foods. Although bakeries, salad bars, and hot-food bars at restaurants like Panera, Golden Corral, or Pizza Hut would be required to list calories, supermarkets are trying to avoid labeling their nearly identical bakeries and food bars. According to Wootan that exemption is not warranted considering that many supermarket chains offer seating and operate much like restaurants. In fact, 80 percent of the top 50 supermarkets that sell prepared foods have nutrition information for some of their prepared foods. They just need to provide it in their stores, where people can use it, and provide it for all their prepared items, says CSPI.

"The Administration should not back down just because some powerful food retailers and the alcohol industry may find the new calorie-labeling law embarrassing," Wootan said. Besides CSPI, the letter to President and Mrs. Obama was signed by the heads of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, the American Public Health Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Consumer Federation of America, the Environmental Working Group, the Prevention Institute, Trust for America’s Health, and many others.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at] or Ariana Stone (astone[at]