Just as Americans begin to cook their high-calorie Thanksgiving dinners, the U.S. government is enacting sweeping changes it hopes will push people to pay more attention to how many calories they consume away from their dining room tables.
The new rules requiring calories to be shown on menus come after years of debate among restaurant operators, grocery store owners and others affected by the change. The requirements were passed in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, yet won't start to take effect until late 2015.
Some restaurants, such as McDonald's, Panera Bread and Starbucks, already list calorie counts on their menus. Many restaurants started to do so to comply with various state and local requirements. But starting next fall, chains with 20 or more locations serving prepared food will have to comply.
The rules, unveiled Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration, cover everything from delivery foods, such as pizza, to alcoholic cocktails listed on bar menus. There are exemptions, such as items from food trucks, or on airplanes and trains, as well as bottles of liquor displayed behind a bar.
"Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in statement. "These final rules will give consumers more information when they are dining out and help them lead healthier lives."
For chains with more than 20 locations, the rules go into effect a year after they are published, which is expected to occur Dec. 1. For smaller restaurant operators, the rules are voluntary. In two years, operators of 20 or more vending machines will have to make sure calorie counts are listed on the front of the packages in those machines, or on signs or stickers.
Diners at the food court at the Shops at North Bridge in Chicago were largely supportive of the effort.
"I very rarely go to McDonald's but when I go out, I look at the calorie counts," said Ron Smothers, a provider network consultant for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. "I think a lot of people focus on that now that it's available."
Added friend John Ruhl, a practice administrator for the Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern: "I'm trying to get into shape, and I'm being more conscious about what I'm eating."
While calorie counts are helpful, Ruhl said he'd like to see more information. "More than calories, it's all about the sugar," he noted, digging into a salad from Potbelly's.
Along with calorie counts, menus will have to include a reminder that "2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary." Customers can also request additional written information such as calories from fat, and the amounts of total fat, cholesterol and sodium.
Cheri Mattsey said she recently returned to Chicago after living for several years in New York, where calorie counts were posted "everywhere."
New York City has required restaurant chains to post calories on menus since 2008.
The posting could make "you change what you would eat," said Mattsey, who works at Nordstrom as an aesthetician for the La Mer skin care line. When she moved back, "I really missed it. A lot of places didn't have it."
Calorie counts don't usually concern Kristina Musial, an account supervisor at a Chicago ad agency.
"But if I were choosing between two things, it might skew me toward the lower (calorie) item," she said.
Smothers echoed a similar thought.
"If you were still jonesing for McDonald's, you could get a cheeseburger," he said.
McDonald's, the world's largest restaurant operator, began posting calorie information on its U.S. menu boards in September 2012. The Oak Brook company has been providing nutritional information in other ways for years, making it difficult to pinpoint if menu labeling itself has influenced customers' behavior. The company said it has long supported a national menu labeling standard.
"McDonald's supports a level playing field where all retail establishments offering foods and beverages are subject to the same menu labeling requirements," said Cindy Goody, the senior director of nutrition and menu innovation at McDonald's USA. "McDonald's is in the process of reviewing the new requirements, and believes this is a benefit to both the restaurant industry and to customers seeking consistent information about calories."
The new calorie rule covers meals at sit-down restaurants, take-out food, bakery items, ice cream from an ice-cream store, and pizza, which will include information for a slice and whole pie. Seasonal menu items, such as a Thanksgiving dinner, daily specials and standard condiments will be exempt. The final rule, unlike a 2011 proposal, includes food served at movie theaters and amusement parks, and alcoholic beverages served in restaurants, but not drinks mixed or served at a bar.
The rules aim to close a gap in the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which established nutrition labeling on most foods, but not for foods in restaurants or other ready-to-eat foods.
The National Restaurant Association supported the federal menu labeling regulations, which it says will help restaurants avoid the current mix of various local and state requirements. But the Food Marketing Institute, which represents grocery stores, was disappointed that its constituents are being lumped together with restaurants. Foods that customers serve themselves, say from a salad bar or hot-food bar, will have to display calorie counts.
"Grocery stores already provide an abundance of nutritional information well beyond calories and have done so for decades," said FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin. "They should not be pulled into a menu labeling law and regulation designed for a different industry."
Tribune editor Julie Tatge and Reuters contributed.