In this past year alone, numerous studies have found that calorie counts on menus don’t deter people from making unhealthy choices (see here, here, and here). However, despite evidence that calorie displays don’t work, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to pass a law requiring calorie information to be displayed on vending machines nationwide in an effort to help consumers choose healthier items.
According to the Associated Press, calorie counts will be displayed on about five million vending machines across the country once the FDA’s proposed rule is finalized. It will apply to over 10,000 companies and cost the vending machine industry, which is already pretty small, about $24 million annually. The cost, the FDA argues, is worth it if it leads to obese adults consuming even 100 fewer calories a week. "It could go either way, but I think there's at least some reason to think it could be slightly more influential in vending machines," said Brian Ebel, assistant professor at New York University’s department of population health and medicine.
But other than presentation – the food being displayed in a machine rather than a menu – there’s really no reason to believe that calorie count information on vending machines would fair any better than it did on fast food menus. "There have been high hopes that menu labeling could be a key tool to help combat high obesity levels in this country, and many people do appreciate having that information available,” said Julie Downs, author of a menu-labeling study released earlier this year. “Unfortunately, this approach doesn't appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much, even when we give consumers what policymakers thought might help: some guidance for how many calories they should be eating.”
And the vending machine industry isn’t so keen on the idea either. The proposed rule gives vending machine companies a year to comply. But the companies — the majority of which have fewer than 10 employees — suggest a two-year deadline for compliance to allow adequate time to decide how to add calorie information to the machines. The companies also believe the calorie counts will be both costly and unnecessary. "It is outrageous for us to have to do this on all our equipment," said Carol Brennan, who owns Brennan Food Vending Services, according to the AP. "How many people have not read a label on a candy bar? If you're concerned about it, you've already read it for years."
The FDA’s proposed rule is set to go into effect in 2014 and is a small part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.