National Consumers League

Food

NCL Food Issues

Dining out? Menu nutritional labeling getting an upgrade

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Menu labeling a must-doBuried in the middle of the health care reform act is a mandate that will require very visible changes at chain restaurants across the country. When the President signed the bill into law, he set the ball rolling for chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post the caloric content of menu items on printed menus, menu boards, and drive-through displays. What will this mean for you?

Buried in the middle of the 900-plus page health care reform act is a mandate that will require very visible changes at chain restaurants across the country. When the President signed the bill into law, he set the ball rolling for chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post the caloric content of menu items on printed menus, menu boards, and drive-through displays, as well as to provide more detailed nutrition information to customers upon request. The provision also applies to foods and beverages sold in vending machines.

This very small portion of the legislation represents a significant gain for public health and completes a process begun in 1994, when the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 went into effect. That act required the vast majority of packaged food products to bear standardized nutrition facts labels, but it failed to include food sold in restaurants. Advocates argued that in order to make informed decisions, consumers must have easy access to nutrition information for all foods they eat, regardless of whether they dine at home, on a frozen meal, or at a chain restaurant. Today, Americans spend approximately half of their food dollars eating out, making it all the more important that we give people the tools they need to make healthier choices.

The calorie labeling piece of the legislation takes information provision even further, by requiring that restaurants remind consumers about average caloric needs. Posting calories on menus, along with the reminder that most adults require only about 2,000 calories a day, is one of the important steps that the government can take to help promote and enable more healthful eating. Studies have shown that when people know the caloric content of the food they consume – and particularly when they are reminded of average daily caloric needs – their consumption drops.

Why labeling matters

Did you know that a shocking 68 percent of American adults are now considered overweight, and approximately half of those individuals are obese? Obesity rates among American consumers have soared. Between 1980 and 2004, the adult obesity rate more than doubled, and the childhood obesity rate more than tripled. Obese Americans are more likely than those with a normal BMI to develop type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and a number of other medical conditions.

Obese individuals are more likely to develop certain chronic health conditions and, in 2008, obesity cost the country about $147 billion in weight-related medical bills—double the cost a decade ago.Even nutrition professionals underestimate the caloric content of menu offerings (Backstrand et al,. 1997), so it is unreasonable to expect the average consumer to know calorie content restaurant foods contain without having it provided for them. But studies have shown that when people know the caloric content of the food they consume – and particularly when they are reminded of average daily caloric needs – their consumption drops.

Another interesting benefit of menu labeling has already emerged: in response to mandatory postings in New York City and elsewhere, and consumer demand for healthier options, several chains have revamped menu offerings to make them healthier, created new healthy options, and/or highlighted options with a certain number of calories or less. Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Starbucks, and Taco Bell are just a few examples of chains that have taken these steps. Soon, many others will join this group in providing consumers with valuable information about the dishes they enjoy while dining out.

When will the labeling begin?

Menu labeling, like much of health reform, will not take effect right away. The bill requests that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) propose regulations to guide chain restaurants within one year of the date the bill was signed. The regulations will then go through a formal rulemaking process, in order to be finalized. The agency is required to update Congress about its progress.

While most items on the menu at chain restaurants will be included in the calorie-posting mandate, providing that information for daily specials, short-term specials, and special orders will not be required.