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Mandatory Nutrition Labels on Restaurant Menus: Coming Soon?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was passed in 2010, contains a clause that requires a standardized menu labeling system in chain restaurants and vending machines across the country. This clause is likely a result of the combined increases in eating away from home and U.S. obesity/overweight rates.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been charged with developing the labeling guidelines; below are the key facts in the proposed requirements released by the FDA. (Note: Four years since the passage of the ACA, the final guidelines have yet to be established; however, it has been reported that the FDA sent the final rules to the White House for approval in April, 2014).

Who is Required to Post Labeling Information?

  • Chain restaurants, defined as those establishments who have 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering virtually the same menu items
  • Movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys, and other establishments whose primary purpose is not to sell food would not be subject to these regulations

What Information Will Be Required?

  • Calorie information would be disclosed on all menus, menu boards (including drive-through menus), and food tags (in a buffet or salad bar setting)
  • Calories for variable menu items, such as combination meals or build-your-own meals (for example, burritos at Chipotle), would be displayed in ranges
  • A statement of recommended daily caloric intake must also be posted on menus and menu boards. The proposed statement is “A 2,000-calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.”
  • Menus must also state that additional written nutrition information is available upon request. For every food item, the following information must be available: total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein.

Vending machines will be similar in that operators with 20 or more vending machines will be required to provide calorie information; however, that information may be posted on a sign next to the vending machine if there is not enough room inside the vending machine.

From a policy standpoint, the purpose of requiring calorie labels on restaurant menus is to better inform consumers about the nutrients they are putting in their bodies, and (ideally) to motivate consumers to make “healthier” choices. Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of calorie labels in restaurants suggests these labels may not fulfill their intended purpose. Numerous studies have explored how calories purchased (and, in some cases, calories consumed) is affected by the presence of calorie information on restaurant menus, but most research – including my own – has found that just providing the number of calories has virtually no impact on food choices or consumption. However, the label’s effectiveness can be improved by adding context to the label. In the case of my research, we provided the number of calories in each food item as well as a green, yellow, or red traffic light signal to denote whether this was a low-, medium- or high-calorie dish. This type of labeling scheme was substantially more effective at reducing calories ordered; however, some consumers did not like the label telling them how they should or should not eat.

Ultimately, the research would suggest that the labeling legislation, as currently proposed, will be relatively ineffective at improving food choices. Adding some type of visual element that can help consumers interpret and understand what the information means could enhance the value of the label. That being said, there are issues to consider that the current research cannot address. For one, the long-term effects of calorie labels have not been studied. Perhaps after multiple exposures over time, consumers will change behavior. Secondly, no studies have looked at how consumers’ food choices are affected throughout the day once they are exposed to calorie information. For instance, if I go to McDonalds and order a high-calorie Big Mac combo, I may eat less for dinner that night, or I may go to the gym and run a few miles on the treadmill. Thus, it is possible that the labels are working, just not in the way we might expect.


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