Change to the Menu: FDA sets December deadline for theatre calorie postings

Snack Corner

Now that we are well into 2015, are you eating healthy? Did you make a resolution to improve your diet, and are you sticking to it? Each year brings those resolutions that relate to improving your health through better food choices, though tough to follow. However, the government is here to help you. That’s right, starting in December 2015, menu-labeling requirements will go into effect, to help you make better choices. Which ones are they, in the theatre concession world?

In November 2014, the FDA made its final ruling and included theatres in its new regulations across most retail food businesses with more than 20 locations. They must include calorie counts on their menus for all food and beverage items by Dec. 1, 2015. This is a tall order and affects our top 15 theatre chains in the U.S. Both NATO and NAC have attempted to get theatres exempt from this regulation, but the FDA’s final decision has included them. This will be a costly effort for the theatre chains for locations without digital menu boards, and the calculation and continual maintenance of correct calorie counts will be an ongoing cost for all.

The final ruling was wider in scope than many expected and even went as far as to include vending machines and calorie counts of some alcoholic beverages. It was a regulation that was included with the Affordable Care Act of 2010 but has been delayed for mostly political reasons and legal challenges. However, the clock is now ticking to the end of December 2015 to comply. There will no doubt continue to be legal challenges, but the businesses that fall under the regulations will now move to meet the regulations to avoid any fines.

The reason behind the regulations was to give people better information to make healthy choices. FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, stated in the FDA’s press release that “Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from the home and people today expect clear information about the products they consume.” Before the obesity epidemic, however, I suspect very few people gave any thought to how many calories a particular food contained. If you look at health information prior to the 1970s, including the FDA’s, calorie counts were rarely the priority. They have become a priority because we cannot seem to get a handle on our obesity problem and we are looking at all ways to do so.

I recently saw an article on which actually listed “Best and Worst Movie Foods” you can eat. We are a nation that likes quick, summarized information. Hence, we love our top ten lists, in just about any category you pick. This list focused specifically on the caloric content, and fat and trans fat, of popular movie foods. Best popcorn item for lowest calories? Small with no topping and air-popped, if anyone is still doing that. Worst popcorn item was the normal big tub coated with butter topping. Best beverage is of course water. Worst beverage listed is the 52-oz. soda. Best savory snack is a plain pretzel and worst is restaurant-style nachos. The worst boxed candy was listed as Reece’s Pieces, primarily because there are 3.5 servings in the box. Most of the candy issues came down to the size of the box dictating a large portion consumed. The same is true of the popcorn and drinks listed above.

That is another item under attack, specifically in New York City: the actual size of the sodas that can be offered. The common theme here is the government stepping in to force consumers to behave in a certain way. We have covered this topic before, and the final ruling on menu labeling is a soft way of doing the same thing. It says, “Stop and think about what you are getting ready to consume.” I think people are going to go to the movies and buy what they want. I think they are going to indulge and consider it a treat for a night out. But I can’t say that the calorie counts won’t affect them. I was recently in an Olive Garden restaurant where everything on the menu is now accompanied by its calorie count and I absolutely took notice. Some of the calorie counts were shocking. I think some people are going to consider it.

As a nation that would be a good thing, to figure out how to combat our obesity problem on all fronts. But as a member of an industry affected by this regulation, I can see the financial effect it will have on us, as well the dialogue that it will continue to spur regarding the healthiness of movie theatre food. It will be an issue that we will confront well into the future. The best thing we can do is be proactive and use our resources. NAC is in the process of developing a calorie template and database of commonly available food and beverage offerings in the theatre and recreational and entertainment channels. We must understand our requirements and match them with our marketing efforts to serve our customers’ wants and needs as best we can.

Send your comments to Anita Watts at