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Would You Like Fries (540 Calories) with That?

Coming soon to chain restaurants everywhere: nutrition labeling. Within a year, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce rules...

Coming soon to chain restaurants everywhere: nutrition labeling.

Within a year, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce rules that could make fast food menus and vending machines resemble the back of a bag of chips, with detailed nutrition information, all thanks to the passage of the health care bill.

Buried deep in the health care bill, section 4205 calls for mandatory nutrition labeling of menu items at chains with more than 20 restaurants. While it's not necessarily the most groundbreaking change, it represents a wider shift by lawmakers not only to provide better health care but also to help prevent disease in the first place. (The bill also includes $15 billion for other preventative health programs over the next decade.)

Nutrition labeling has been adopted in a handful of cities, including New York City and Philadelphia, and is scheduled to go into effect in California, Massachusetts, and Oregon soon. Supporters cite at least two recent studies that say labeling leads to lower-calorie menu selections. One Stanford study found that Starbucks customers switched to lower calorie food (not drink) options, choosing six percent fewer calories per transaction without doing significant damage to Starbucks's bottom line. Another study found that parents presented with nutrition info selected about 100 fewer calories per meal for their children on average.

But what these studies didn't examine was how inaccurate the nutrition labeling appears to be, the factors that lead people to eat at Starbucks in the first place, and how these isolated choices figure into people's overall diets. Meanwhile, other studies have found that the calorie counts don't change how many calories people purchase, raising doubts about the effectiveness of labeling.

The Wall Street Journal says chain restaurants are reformulating items to make them appear healthier, and introducing new, lower-calorie menu options. In fact, the restaurant industry supported the new law, figuring that this legislation was inevitable, and having one federal law was simpler than having 50 different laws for each state. But while chains might claim that the shift towards lower-calorie foods has been driven by customers being more health conscious, it's still unclear whether customers will actually eat more healthily.

We shouldn't expect escalating obesity rates to come to a standstill because of a single piece of legislation-or a single clause buried thousands of words deep in the health-care bill. After all, there's a complex web of factors that contribute to obesity. Besides, quantifying nutrition with calorie numbers and perplexing serving sizes sometimes obscures what healthy diets are really about: place, people, tradition, and taste. The health care bill represents an important step in recognizing the importance of dietary changes, but wouldn't it be great if restaurants-chains or no chains-just made better food altogether?

Source photo for illustration from Wikimedia user (cc) JuergenG.

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