Although the restaurant industry in the United States is struggling, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home. Other surveys show that more than half of the money spent on food goes to restaurants and convenient on-the-go meals — rather than to groceries cooked at home. While calorie intake is relatively easy to control at home, it’s a challenge when dining out where choices are almost limitless and information about calorie content so scarce. The FDA has decided, therefore, that “making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”
History of Menu Labeling
Back in 2010 President Obama signed into effect a law that stated that U.S. restaurants that are part of big chains will be required to put calorie information on their menus. Nothing really materialized, and further delays were expected as the Trump administration focused on other things. Nonetheless, surprises happen, and a November 2017 article in Forbes, entitled, “Food Industry Blindsided As Trump Administration Supports Obama-Era Menu Labeling Effort,” talks about recent unexpected developments: The FDA issued preliminary guidelines for the posting of calorie counts on menus and signage in restaurants, supermarkets, pizza chains, and vending machines, to take effect on May 7, 2018. The regulations will apply to food-service establishments and supermarkets that have 20 or more locations.
The Need for Labeling
Although food-industry groups have fought federal labeling legislation for years, saying that it would be costly and complicated, the need for more information is irrefutable. People typically consume 20% to 40% more calories in restaurants than they do when they eat at home. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, menu items at non-chain restaurants across the United States typically contain upward of 1,200 calories — about half of the 2,000 or 2,500 calories recommended daily for women and men, respectively. Because Americans eat out so frequently, dining out is linked with the obesity epidemic, which is on the rise.
To remedy this issue, rules requiring retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to post “the number of calories contained in the standard menu item,” were included among the many provisions of the Affordable Care Act (2010). Another section mandated that vending machines “provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food, or the selection button, that includes a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the number of calories contained in the article.” The hope was that these regulations would help people calculate how many calories they were eating, and perhaps choose more wisely.
Implementation of the labeling rules was delayed, however, due to lobbying and protests on behalf of the food industry. Pizza makers, for instance, pushed for less stringent postings, while supermarkets argued that labeling would be too expensive and complex for them. Movie theaters joined the fray, as well, and tried to keep their jumbo-sized 1,000-calorie popcorns out of the labeling regulations.
Now, however, the stalemate has ended and the FDA has released guidelines related to how the industry will have to comply with the menu labeling rule by May 2018. Health advocates are again lauding the resurgent rulings, particularly the fact that it leaves the original legislation mostly unchanged. Announcing the guidelines so long before the implementation date also gives businesses ample time to meet the requirements.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb reiterated the agency’s commitment to health and nutrition and said, “The FDA takes seriously the authority Congress granted to us in overseeing federal food labeling standards, including our mandate to make calorie information available on menus.”
The Jury Is Still Out
Although health proponents are thrilled that labeling hopes will soon come to fruition, it’s not at all clear that calorie posting will have a significant impact on citizens’ health. Studies suggest that calorie labeling is not a significant factor when it comes to people’s food choices. Having more information doesn’t automatically change a person’s behavior, so it is likely that people who are already calorie-conscious will pay attention to the labeling, while those who don’t care, won’t.
Nonetheless, calorie labeling may still have a positive effect. It could, first of all, push food producers to reformulate products so that they aren’t so high in calories. Researchers found, for instance, that after menu labeling was implemented in Seattle, WA, restaurants changed their recipes and lowered calories.
Second, calorie labeling could eventually change consumer attitudes about nutrition. In the very least, as an article in Health Affairs indicates, it could raise awareness about nutrition. The hope is that the story will play out along the lines of tobacco policies which changed smoking patterns and social norms, gradually but steadily.
Specifics of Food Labeling Legislation
According to the latest FDA regulation, “to help consumers better understand the new calorie listings in the context of a total daily diet, the FDA is requiring restaurants to include a statement on menus and menu boards reminding consumers that ‘2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.’” Food targeted to children must have, “1,200 to 1,400 calories a day for ages 4 to 8 years, and 1,400 to 2,000 calories a day for children ages 9 to 13 years, but calorie needs vary.”
Under the new rules, chains must post a menu board in “clear view” of diners that lists the name of every menu item offered, including options like meal combos, and the calorie counts for each. In establishments where the food is on display, like a self-service buffet, calorie counts must be listed on each item. Other nutrient information—such as, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, and sugars—will have to be made available in writing on request.
These rules apply to restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations. This includes food bought at drive-through windows; take-out foods, like pizza; made-to-order sandwiches from delis and grocery stores; popcorn at movie theaters; muffins at coffee shops and bakeries; ice cream at ice cream stores; hot dogs prepared on the premises of large stores, and more. Regarding vending machines, the FDA is allowing two years for machine operators to comply with these requirements.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Although for health advocates, the process has been long and frustrating, the end of their long campaign for menu labeling is in sight. The National Restaurant Association issued a statement saying that it believes “that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law.” Come May 2018, menu labeling will come into effect and Americans may finally change the way they eat.