The next time you’re at your favorite chain restaurant or fast casual franchise, take a closer look at the menu. Along with descriptions and prices for different dishes, you’ll now see a little something extra: calorie counts. This menu addition comes courtesy of the new menu labeling rule from the Food and Drug Administration, a long-awaited regulation that aims to help consumers make healthier choices when eating out.
Eight of the most important things you need to know about the new rule include:
1. It aims to address a growing issue.
In the past, eating out was a relatively rare indulgence, often saved for special occasions and other singular events. But today, given our increasingly busy lifestyles, people are eating out more than ever. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the average American gets a surprising one-third of their calories from eating out.
Unfortunately, numerous studies have made a connection between all this eating out and increased rates of obesity. The new FDA menu labeling rule aims to help address this issue by providing consumers with clear, easy-to-understand nutrition information at the point of ordering so they can make more informed, healthy choices when dining out.
2. It was many years in the making.
Although the official compliance date for the new menu labeling rule was only reached last year, the rule itself has been in the making for many years. It was first proposed in 2008 by the National Restaurant Association and a number of chain establishments.
However, it was pushed back numerous times as other reluctant businesses fought against it. The final rule for menu labeling was published by the FDA on December 1, 2014, and came into effect on May 7, 2018.
3. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Affordable Care Act.
Interestingly, the law responsible for governing the menu labeling rule is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Upon closer examination, it’s easy to see that the rule reflects one of the ACA’s key priorities: prevention, or helping people stay healthy and stop them from getting sick in the first place.
According to FDA analysis, the menu rule could save the US health care system $8 billion over the next 20 years. It’s perhaps for this reason that the menu labeling rule has been unaffected by other changes to the ACA. According to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, nutrition issues are not “a right-versus-left issue.”
4. It is geared towards larger chains.
If you don’t spot any nutrition information on the menu at your favorite neighborhood café, it’s because the menu labeling rule is primarily geared towards larger food service chains. The rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments (which may include grocery stores, convenience stores, and entertainment venues such as movie theaters) that have at least 20 fixed locations.
5. It goes beyond calories.
While the most noticeable feature of the menu labeling rule is the calorie counts that must now appear next to individual menu items, the rule doesn’t stop there. Restaurants must also post that more detailed nutrition information is available on request, and be ready to provide that information if a customer asks for it. (These extra details essentially cover the same things you would find on a Nutrition Facts label on packaged food, such as sodium, sugars, and saturated fat.)
6. It doesn’t cover everything a restaurant might serve.
While most foods that a restaurant would typically serve are covered by the menu labeling rule, a handful of items are exempt. These include custom orders, daily specials, menu items that are only temporary, condiments available for general use, and any foods that are not featured on the menu or menu board and are not on display or available for self-service.
7. It’s not a new approach for some establishments.
Prior to 2018, it wasn’t mandatory for restaurants to display or post nutrition information about their menu items, but some establishments chose to do it anyway. Chains such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s implemented standardized menu labeling years ago.
In addition, some establishments brought in menu labeling due to regulations at the municipal or state level. For example, New York City implemented a city-wide menu labeling policy as far back as 2006.
8. It could incentivize restaurants to offer healthier options.
With the new menu labeling rule, consumers will have the information they need to make healthier choices. They may also benefit from the incentive that the rule offers restaurants to improve the healthfulness of their offerings.
In other words, when restaurants are required to list the calorie content of their menu items, it may be in their interest to reformulate those items so that they have a lower calorie content to begin with. According to one study conducted between 2005 and 2011, five fast-food chains that were subject to menu labeling increase the number of options offered from 13 percent to 20 percent of their menus.