Is the FDA Biting Off More Than It Can Chew?

Think your grocery bill is too high?

Well, soon it might get even higher, thanks to a new regulation that will be announced by the FDA next week. The new ruling will require grocery stores, chain restaurants, vending machines and other food establishments to post the calorie count on any food items they prepare. The new rules are a clarification of a provision in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Any grocery that sells takeout foods — potato salad, cole slaw, chicken salad, cake, bread — will have to compute the caloric content and then post it for consumers. This will require meticulous calculation of the calories of all items prepared on premises, which will entail hours of time, and the cost will be passed on to you-know-who — the consumer. Grocery stores often change their salad offerings based on what produce is in season. The new ruling will make grocers think twice before deciding to add, say, blueberries or apples to a salad. Pizza chains will probably have to create an IT department just to figure out how many calories there are for every possible permutation of toppings.

The cost for all this new regulation is estimated to run in the billions over the next 20 years.

Of course, some groceries, not wanting to bother with the trouble or the cost, will stop selling takeout food altogether, which will leave consumers without the option of buying fresh salads or other takeout delicacies. Instead, shoppers will have to resort to less healthy choices, selecting frozen or bagged salads, for example. With consumers ultimately having fewer healthy choices, the good intentions of the FDA will backfire.

Calorie counts are good to know, but how often are we really surprised by the number of calories in a food item? Most of the time we know fairly well how much damage a takeout food will do to our waistline. People buying a pound of potato salad lathered with mayonnaise don’t expect it to be a diet food that will help lower the numbers when they step on the scale. Same with a chocolate-nut fudge brownie. On the other hand, we can all be pretty confident that steamed broccoli won’t set us back much on our calorie count.

Most people will make the choice based on what they want to eat, regardless of the calorie count. If someone walks into a steakhouse, the menu’s calorie count for the steak won’t be much of a deterrent. In fact, a survey of restaurant-goers in New York City, which instituted calorie counts for chain-food restaurants, found that only 15 percent said that the information influenced their menu choice. One study by NYU and Yale university researchers found that NYC restaurant patrons actually ordered items with more calories after the regulation went into effect than before. The study concluded that “simply displaying information about the caloric value of various food options may fail to translate into attitudinal, motivational or — most importantly — behavioral changes in line with choosing healthier food options.

While forcing groceries and restaurants to carefully compute calories would result as a cost to the consumer without much benefit, it would be a good idea for those establishments to be transparent as to exactly what ingredients they are putting into those food items. It’s easy to surmise whether a food is fattening, but ingredients such as peanuts, spices, fish oil, and other foods that are potentially deadly to those with allergies, are difficult to know. Listing the ingredients of prepared foods would not take much effort on the part of food establishments and would help those with allergies know which offerings to avoid. Knowing exactly what ingredients are in prepared foods would also help those with gluten sensitivity to make the right choices for their diet.

It’s not clear how these rules will be enforced. Will the FDA hire a new calorie police with the power to arrest and handcuff grocers who have the wrong calorie counts for their chicken or cauliflower salad?

Certainly, the FDA’s new 396-page regulation is well-meaning, but is regulating cauliflower salad really the most pressing issue for the department? The FDA should prioritize its powers to regulate the effects of genetically altered foods, antibiotics in animal feed, herbal and dietary supplements. There’s a whole array of chemicals and food additives in processed foods that the average consumer can’t even pronounce, let alone know what hazards it poses. Knowing the calorie count of a polysyllabic additive doesn’t shed light on whether it’s a carcinogen.

The FDA has many more important issues on its plate than regulating how much potato salad we put on ours.