If you’re a calorie-conscious restaurant diner, you’re likely already accustomed to choosing the side salad rather than French fries. But do you think twice about ordering a glass of wine? Come December, it’s going to be harder to feign ignorance of your calorie intake when you order wine. An FDA guideline will go into effect requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus not only for food, but for alcohol as well.
“We think this is really important,” said Claudine Kavanaugh, a nutrition scientist for the FDA. “At the grocery store, for almost all packaged foods that you get, there’s nutrition information. Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home. So this is a place where there’s really been a gap.”
Part of the Affordable Care Act, the rule originally included provisions only for food when it was composed in 2011. But a large volume of public comments convinced the FDA to extend the guidelines to drinks.
All restaurants or restaurant-like establishments that have 20 or more locations under the same name are subject to the rules, including several chains known for large selections of wine, such as Morton's Steakhouse and Olive Garden. (Many such restaurants are already familiar with adding calorie counts to their menus, since several municipalities, including New York, require it locally.)
The rule has no bearing on alcoholic beverage labeling; that falls under the jurisdiction of the TTB.
When the rule was first announced, some winemakers feared that it would mandate that they pay for costly analyses of their individual wines, but the FDA has made clear that the burden is on restaurants, not suppliers. “We don’t have a problem with the rule as it’s written," said Michael Kaiser of WineAmerica, an organization that represents American wineries. "We just want to make sure it’s followed the way the FDA had established it.”
And while wine drinkers have become more calorie conscious in recent years, they'll soon discover that calorie counts don't vary widely across wine lists. Most dry table wines contain about 120 to 130 calories per 5-ounce glass. Wines that are higher in alcohol may be slightly more caloric than their lower-alcohol counterparts (and some restaurants may be delivering a few extra calories by pouring more than 5 ounces) but the differences are generally minute.
Even some so-called low-calorie wines, such as Skinnygirl, deliver about 100 calories per serving; the difference between that and most other wines is equivalent to about two stalks of celery.
The FDA has left it up to the restaurants to decide how they’re going to calculate calories. “When they post the calorie information on the menu, the establishments need to have a reasonable basis of how they came up with that number; they didn't just pull it out of the air,” said Kavanaugh. Just about any source will do: cookbooks, databases (such as the one operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), in-house or outsourced analyses.
“Surprisingly, the law is allowing for a range of calories for wine and beer,” said Angelica Sbai, national director of wine and spirits for Palm Restaurant Group. Diners won’t be subjected to the differences between a glass of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay versus Mark West Chardonnay; rather, they’ll see a range of calories listed for all Chardonnays, or in some cases, for all white wines.
The Palm has enlisted a California-based company, Healthy Dining, to calculate the calorie counts for each food item on their menus, but Sbai said that figuring out the calorie ranges for alcohol would be considerably easier. “I’m researching what wines have the least amount of calories and what wines have the most, so that can justify a range for us,” she said.
Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão has already begun listing calories, well in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline. Like the Palm, it outsources its analyses, to Baltimore company Sherwin Food Safety. Alda Boiani, who handles wine for the restaurant, said figuring out the numbers for wine was a simple, one-time task. “It’s easy. We group the wines, because the differences are so little,” she said.
Will this calorie information matter to wine drinkers when they’re dining out? Boiani isn’t sure that her customers are noticing. “Most of the people who come to our restaurant, they don’t care much. I don’t see any differences or comments.”
Sbai questions the appeal of calorie counts to her core audience. “When you’re out at the Palm, usually you’re out for a special occasion, and I think to have the calories thrown in your face kind of takes away from the atmosphere of the event.” But she notes that while it may be “eye opening” for some guests to see how many calories are in certain dishes or drinks, “I don’t know that it changes their decision.”
The FDA's Kavanaugh maintains that more knowledge can’t hurt. “This is going to provide consumers with more information."