Big changes are coming to restaurants and grocery stores nationwide. In this interview with Burnesser Elizabeth Wenk, Sara Brinda gets the scoop on what these changes will mean for menus, packaged foods and American families.

Can you tell us about the changes coming to menus and food labels?

The Food and Drug Administration recently made two major announcements that are going to impact basically everyone who buys food.

First, they released final guidance on a rule that will require all food retail chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for their menu options.

Second, they announced that the Nutrition Facts Panel (the black and white chart on packaged foods and beverages) is in for a major overhaul – the first since 1994. Some of the changes include:

  • Serving sizes will be revised to reflect the amounts of products that people actually consume. No more packages of cookies that say a serving size is a quarter of a cookie!
  • Calorie counts will be listed in a much larger and bolder font.
  • A line for added sugars will be included, as will a “daily value” to indicate the maximum amount of added daily sugars recommended by experts.

Elizabeth, you’ve been working on public health and nutrition issues for more than 15 years. Why are these announcements such big news for the field?

Consumers are about to have more information than they’ve ever had, to help them understand the food and drinks that they’re buying.

More and more, consumers want to eat healthy, but they really don’t have the information they need to make the decisions to do that. And that’s going to change: If you’re in a restaurant, and would be happy eating either the burger or the chicken, there’s going to be one big number to help you break the tie.

You’re a parent of four kids. From that perspective, what can you tell us about the impact you’re expecting from menu labeling?

You know, about four years ago, we took a vacation to New York City, which was the first place in the country to require menu labeling for chain restaurants. We went to Starbucks, and agreed to let the kids each pick out a treat. And there were calorie counts for all of the items in the display case. We could see which ones had more calories, and which ones had fewer, and we all talked about it.

They ended up choosing the treats with fewer calories!  They had learned about calories in school, but hadn’t been able to really use that knowledge when we’d gone to the Starbucks here in Maryland. And we go to Starbucks all the time!

When there are menu labels everywhere, there are going to be tons of opportunities to let kids – and adults! – actually apply what they know about nutrition and hopefully make healthy choices.

What about the Nutrition Facts Panel? Are there certain products that you and your kids scrutinize at the store?

Cereal.  It’s something my kids eat most mornings for breakfast (along with fruit of course!).  But it’s a fight every time we are at the grocery store – they always want Honey Nut Cheerios, and I’m always choosing regular Cheerios.

The nutrition facts panel provides us with clear information about which cereal has more sugar, and which cereal is better for you overall.  It doesn’t mean they are always happy with their regular Cheerios, but they are starting to realize more and more just how bad sugar is for them, and how it impacts them in the classroom andon the soccer field.

Where can people learn more?

There’s a lot of good information online about these changes – here are some good places to start: