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Restaurants that use descriptions like "heart-healthy," "light," or "low fat" will be required to meet standards established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They also will be required to provide customers, upon request, with nutrition information about the claims. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer group based in Washington, D.C., which waged a long but successful battle for the new requirements, termed the FDA menu regulation "another victory for consumers."
"With about half of all food dollars being spent on food eaten away from home, and one-third of all calories in the average American's diet coming from such food, consumers must be able to trust nutrition claims in restaurants," stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI's director of legal affairs.
"Many restaurants have made menu claims that exaggerate the nutritional value of their foods," CSPI staff attorney Leila Farzan said.
For instance, the Washington Hilton's restaurant described its brown rice terrine as a "healthy choice," but it had 41 grams of fat. That's two-thirds of a person's daily quota.
Tippin's restaurants claimed their pies were "low in fat," but they actually contained 16 to 19 grams of fat per slice.
"The FDA's new truth-in-menu regulation," Farzan said, "will help ensure that restaurant menus live up to their claims -- and perhaps even feature more healthy meals."
Similar regulations required by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 have been in effect for grocery store food packaging since 1994, but the FDA failed to extend the rules to claims made on restaurant menus.
In response to a lawsuit filed by Public Citizen and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled last year that restaurant menus are covered by the law.
To help educate consumers, CSPI has developed A Diner's Guide to Restaurant Menu Health and Nutrition Claims which outlines the new rules and provides helpful hints for diners who want to choose more healthful foods. The Guide is available on CSPI's web page.
While the FDA rule requires restaurants that make health and nutrition claims to meet FDA definitions for those terms, it does not require restaurants to provide complete nutrition information, nor does it require menu items to stand up to laboratory analyses to ensure that the nutrition information is accurate.
Restaurants that do not make claims are not required to provide any nutrition information at all.
"The FDA's new menu regulation is a good start toward improving the reliability of menu claims," Silverglade said. "However, just because menu claims are regulated doesn't mean they will always be reliable. Consumers still need to carefully scrutinize all claims and ask for specific nutrition information," Silverglade added.
CSPI has urged the FDA to establish a training course for state and local food officials to help enforce the new regulations.
CSPI is a nonprofit consumer organization based in Washington, D.C. CSPI was formed in 1971 and is now supported by more than 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI led the drive for enactment of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which regulates health claims for foods and dietary supplements.
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