John Cortinas knows exactly how many calories he is consuming.
The 54-year-old government meteorologist nibbles a salad at a Chipotle in Silver Spring, Md., Where he says he carefully reads the calorie count on menu options.
“I am looking to make healthy choices,” he said. “I’m watching my weight,” Cortinas said, nodding at the diet soda he bought to go with his salad.
Cortinas said he was aware of and acknowledging Food and Drug Administration restaurant labeling requirements that went into effect on Monday. “I pay more attention to low-calorie options,” he said.
It took a long time to get here, but all restaurants with 20 or more outlets must display calorie counts and other nutritional information on their menus. This includes popcorn at the movies and drinks at bars.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required the labels, but the FDA has since negotiated with industry and Congress.
Many restaurant chains have been showing this calorie count for years. Others fought fiercely against them, and a year ago the FDA delayed labeling requirements for a year.
Since Monday, there is no more delay.
“By having information about the calories in food, you can make more informed decisions about the foods you eat – decisions that can help improve your overall health and that of your family,” the FDA said.
“And it’s just as important that you and your family have access to this information when you eat out, as you do at home when you can see the calorie count on food packaging. “
Chipotle, which specializes in make-your-own burritos, tacos and salad bowls, provides a breakdown by ingredient. For example, the menu tells customers that a burrito can provide between 740 and 1210 calories, depending on the rice (210 calories), beans (130 calories), salsa (15 to 80 calories) or cheese (110 calories). that you put.
“The good thing is understanding not only the overall calories, but also the calorie count of the components of what you have,” Cortinas said.
Celis De La Cruz also appreciates the number of calories. “I don’t do any of the carbs,” she said, as she stepped out of the same Chipotle in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Almost all I get are salads – lettuce and chicken,” the 40-year-old analyst added. “I’m one of those people who can eat the same thing every day at noon. “
Menu labels are not new to Silver Spring. The Washington suburb is in Montgomery County, which adopted its own menu labeling requirements in 2010.
The idea behind the laws, federal and local, is to help Americans control their weight. With 40 percent of the US population obese and over 70 percent either obese or overweight, the need is dire.
“For consumers who want to consume fewer calories, having calorie information and other nutritional information has the potential to save and improve lives,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. .
Some studies have shown that menu labels do not affect consumer behavior. Most patrons at a Panera bread around the corner from the Chipotle said they hadn’t paid attention.
“I just eat what I want to eat,” said a man in his thirties, who declined to give his name, as he ate a bagel (about 300 calories) with peanut butter (250 calories).
But Allen, a 48-year-old computer security specialist who declined to give his full name, said he memorized the number of calories at fast food chains.
“I watch it to make sure it’s not too high,” he said as he finished a sandwich in a Panera. “I like to keep it around 500 calories, generally. You have three meals a day and you get 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day.
He estimates that his own sandwich provided 400 calories. “The chips are around 80,” he said. “It’s not so bad.”
A Panera Mediterranean vegetarian sandwich is the lowest-calorie option in the restaurant chain, at 440 calories, although flatbread sandwiches contain less than 400 calories. A steak and white cheddar panini accumulates 940 calories.
This is the kind of information people really need to make choices, argues the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI has for decades published stunning annual reports on the calorie, fat and salt content of meals at popular restaurant chains and has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the federal government to enact the labeling law menus.
“Without it, it would be hard to say that Louisiana Chicken Pasta (2,330 calories) is much tougher on your waistline than The Cheesecake Factory Four Cheese (1,190 calories) pasta,” said the CSPI in a statement released on Monday.
“The numbers tell you it’s about 1,000 calories more. At Starbucks, a large Caffè Mocha with whole milk and whipped cream (400 calories) contains five times more calories than a large Cappuccino without fat (80 calories).
Cleveland Clinic nutritionist Kristin Kirkpatrick thinks menu labels are a good first step.
“I think we need to do a lot more things because consumers are demanding more and more information about their food and drinks,” she said.
“But it’s definitely going to reveal a little more and we’ll see – time will tell if that will change behavior.”
Even when it comes to a treat, the menu’s calorie count draws attention, said Aaron Kimbrough, manager of a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor in Silver Spring.
“It’s funny. Some people make jokes about it,” he said. “I had a wife last weekend, she wanted a scoop of the lowest calorie ice cream we have,” he added.
But Kimbrough said he doubts the calorie list will change the behavior of most customers. “You know, if you come here you’re not looking to save calories,” he laughed.