What’s On the Table for Menu Labels?

You may have heard in recent news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) filed a notice delaying (again) a long-awaited menu labeling rule that was to be implemented on May 5, 2017. Under the rule, restaurants and retail food establishments that offer restaurant-type food with 20 or more locations would be required to provide calorie and other nutrition information on standard menu items. This includes coffee shops, bakeries, delicatessens, take-out and delivery foods, food service kiosks, entertainment venues, convenience stores, and grocery stores offering foods intended for individual consumption. Additionally, food service establishments would be required to provide a short statement on menus and menu boards concerning suggested daily calorie intake for consumers and the availability of written nutrition information. 

Many restaurant chains have already added nutrition information to their menus, though some were waiting until the last minute. A coalition of 17 food industry groups have supported a delay in the rule and have argued that the changes would place an increased burden on industry. On the other hand, public health associations support the rule and the potential increased awareness of calories in restaurant foods.

The rule was included in the nutrition labeling provisions under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, in part to address the growing concern for obesity throughout the United States. Over two-thirds of adults and about one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, with overconsumption of calories being one of the primary risk factors. Since Americans, on average, consume one-third of their total calories from foods prepared outside of the home, the thinking behind this rule is that knowing the calorie amount of standard menu items at restaurants and other food establishments may help them to make informed decisions about the food they eat.

Will this make a difference? According to the results from our 2016 Food and Health Survey, over half of consumers will (at least) sometimes use nutrition information to decide what to order when eating out at restaurants.Those most likely to use nutrition information are college graduates in better health between the ages of 18 and 49 with a higher income and higher body mass index. Overall, customers may or may not use nutrition information, and only time will tell what type of impact this has on public health. 

This blog was written by Kathleen Walters, a dietetic intern at Virginia Tech.