You may have noticed that America’s restaurant chains are posting the caloric content of your favorites on their menu boards.This is the result of one of the wellness and prevention provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as amended by the Health and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (PPACA), adopted last year by the Congress and the President.

The provision, section 4205, will take effect within one year after specific regulations are drawn up by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Draft regulations were issued in August, 2010, and many chains are not awaiting the final rules.

Margo G. Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), lauded the new policy, noting that “coffee drinks can range from 20 calories to 800 calories, and burgers can range from 250 calories to well over 1,000 calories. [The new law] is giving Americans easy access to the most critical piece of nutrition information they need when eating out.”

With about a third of all Americans eating fast food on any given day and with an astounding 68 percent overweight – up from 46 percent just ten years ago – the information could have an impact on eating habits and help reduce weight across the country.

Working mostly at the state and local levels, CPSI pursued this type of legislation for seven years before it emerged in the PPACA. It was supported by the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association. Even the National Restaurant Association supported the language in the new law.

The AHA points out that the National Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which required nutritional labeling on non-restaurant food products, greatly expanded consumer access to information and is used by 70 to 85 percent of food shoppers.

As enacted, the new policy applies only to restaurant chains with at least 20 outlets. Recognizing the difficulty of assessing the less standardized menus of non-chain restaurants, proponents nevertheless hope that the policy will be expanded after initial experience in chain settings is evaluated. Restaurants will also be required to notify customers that “additional nutrition information” – including total fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars and other content – is available upon request.

Hailing the policy as “a huge victory for consumers,” Wootan pointed out that “it’s just one of dozens of things we need to do to reduce rates of obesity and diet-related disease in this country.”

The Fund’s manual, Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers, is available through the online catalogue. More information about PPACA is available at the Fund’s health care reform updates page.

[Steve Clark]