Calorie Labeling on Menus: What is it and how will it work?

In today’s society with everyone constantly on the go, it isn’t uncommon for many people to eat at a restaurant several times a week.  Along with an increase in restaurant visits has come an overall increase in the occurrence of obesity.  To help combat this issue, restaurants have begun offering healthier options and as part of the health care reform bill, they will soon also be required to post calorie counts.  With this upcoming requirement, restaurants now need to know what has to happen on their part.  Along with that, it’s important to know whether or not the actual concept can be successful in  helping patrons make a more educated decision at their favorite restaurants.

MenuWhat Does a Restaurant Have to Do Under This New Law?*

If a restaurant chain has 20 or more locations, they will be required to begin posting calories counts on the menu in 2012.  Restaurants that don’t necessarily meet this requirement, but would like to participate are allowed to do so as long as they follow the same guidelines.  From there, the menu labeling begins.  The first requirement is similar to that of the labeling currently on the pre-packaged items that we’re all used to, which is to include the following somewhere on the menu: “A 2,000 calorie daily diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual needs may vary.”  This information has to be the same size as any calorie information and placed at the bottom or top of the menu.  In addition, it is necessary is to post that other nutritional information is available upon request, using the same sizing rules.

With fine print covered, it’s important to then know the requirements for the actual calorie information.  The must-do items are that the calorie information has to have a contrasting background from other items, it cannot be smaller than the price and/or name of the item (whichever is smallest) and the information has to reside in an area labeled as Cal or Calories.  It’s also required to follow the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act rules for rounding calories on the menu (see the FDA site for a technical version or FoodCalc for a more basic model). 

While these rules are pretty basic there are a few extras to remember as well.  One is that no matter how big the portion (if it’s meant for a single person or meant to share), the total calories for the dish must be reported.  Second, is that in an atmosphere like a buffet, the calories are to be calculated using the scoop or piece size.   Finally, for items like combo meals where choices are available a range of calories for the choices should be listed.

Once these rules have been followed, it’s also good to know what the exceptions are.   One of the big ones is that temporary menu items (defined as an item that is on the menu for less than 60 continuous days) and test menu items (defined as an item being tested and on the menu for less than 90 days) are not required to have calories posted.  Another exception is that custom orders do not require any labeling since they are made to special requirements specified by the guest.  Other items that do not require this labeling are alcoholic drinks and condiments.

Will This Menu Addition Create a Change in How People Eat?    

With this new law effecting a huge amount of restaurant locations by adding on additional work, financial investment and even possibly having to rework menu items to bring down the calorie counts, will it all be worth it?   Many are not so sure that by simply posting numbers, patrons will totally change their decisions on what to choose the next time they are out.  While others think it’s definitely a step in the right direction.  So far many studies and experiments have been done to find an answer, but the conclusions still aren’t exactly clear cut.

Some people believe that by just putting the information out there for public consumption it will begin to make a difference.  In an article on the Kaiser Health News site, Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, “For nearly 20 years, consumers have benefitted from nutrition labels on packaged foods, but have remained in the dark about the nutritional quality of their restaurant meals, the passage of menu labeling closes this glaring loophole.”   Similarly, Lorien Urban, a nutrition researcher at Tufts University, said on Reuters Health, “We think labeling of all foods is going to be helpful, because people are eating a lot more calories than they think.” 

However, there are others that think that this information alone may not really make a difference due to a lack of truly understanding what calories really mean to their health.  In the same Kaiser Health News article, executive director of the American Public Health Association, Georges Benjamin, stated that he believes that while the tool is there, people must also be educated in order to understand how calories translate into weight gain and possibly even obesity.  He compares this to the long term education of the public on the hazards of cigarettes versus simply putting a warning on packages.

Still one study does show hope that reading the calories really can make an impression on a customer’s final choice.  According to the LA Times, “A British Medical Journal study released last month found that menu labeling made a difference of 106 calories, on average, in what more than 8,000 people ordered at New York fast-food restaurants — but only among the 15% who said they saw or used the information.”   This study does show that seeing what the amount of calories are does help influence decisions and helps patrons cut back.  However, like Benjamin’s thoughts above, it brings up the issue that not everyone will actually pay attention to, notice or even understand this new available information.

Due to this possible lack of education on calories and the chance to not even notice their new place on menus, in an article in The New York Times, Richard Williams, retired member of the Center for Food Safety and applied Nutrition at the FDA, suggests a more user friendly alternative.   Williams feels that instead of simply focusing on calories and how too many could be harmful, that a symbol system be used to know if a food is a healthy choice overall.  Williams’ approach is that it’s more important to know what is the healthier option, not just which option is higher in calories, since this focus could essentially lead to lower calorie intake but higher intake in other not-so-healthy areas like fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates.

So what is the solution?  For now, the restaurants will need to begin working on getting calorie counts added to their menu for the 2012 deadline.  Will that make a big difference in the rate of obesity in the U.S.?   That will no doubt be studied over time and eventually lead to a more widespread labeling practice or spark an outcry for a better system.  Only time will tell how well just presenting calories will work for the ever-growing population.

 Will this new addition of calories on menus influence your choices?  Why or why not?  Please share your answer in our comment section below.

*All information in this section comes from the National Menu Labeling Law White Paper


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