Reporting on Federal Menu Labeling Rules

By Sandy K. Johnson

A small order of french fries has 230 calories.

A large order of fries has 510 calories.

It’s probably obvious that a large order of fries is not really the best choice from a nutritional standpoint. But if the calorie count slaps you in the face – in black-and-white on a menu – will you alter your order?

Restaurants and other businesses selling prepared food are now required by the federal government to publicly list calorie counts as well as make more detailed nutrition information available to customers.

Susan Mayne, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which developed the guidelines, said the hope is to create a “feedback loop.”

“As calories and other nutrient information are available to consumers, we expect that companies that manufacture food and restaurant operations that serve food will innovate to improve the health profiles of the foods they offer,” Mayne told a National Press Foundation briefing.

Who’s covered? The regulations apply to restaurants, bars, cafes and retail food stores (including prepared foods in grocery stores, food marts and bakeries) that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations.

Laura Abshire, director of food and sustainability policy at the National Restaurant Association, said many independent restaurants or smaller chains are also publishing nutrition stats “in an effort to promote transparency and provide information.”

Foods that are generally covered include most menu items, alcoholic drinks, self-service items and other beverages. There are exemptions for daily specials, seasonal specials and food items being test-marketed.

Businesses must also make available (typically online) a deeper nutrition breakdown that includes total calories, fat calories, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar and protein.

Abshire said the nutritional breakdowns can be done by lab analysis, consulting cookbooks, employing dietitians or other “reasonable means.”

(Mayne also noted the government will be rolling out updated nutrition facts label requirements in 2020; those are the familiar labels on packaged foods.)

Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said people eat more calories and fat, and fewer fruits and vegetables, when they eat out. CSPI is well-known for its nutritionist surveys of horrifying calorie counts in popular foods. Example: a Chipotle chicken burrito has 1,090 calories, 16 grams of saturated fat and 2,240 milligrams of sodium.

Wootan said the goal of the menu labels is to spur restaurants to offer healthier choices, and to make consumers think twice about what they order. Is it working?

Abshire said, “It’s too early to tell, but it’s helpful to consumers.” Wootan said very preliminary research indicates people might be eating 30 fewer calories per day – a small number but enough to incite celebration in those involved in food policy.

Subscribe on YouTube
More Presentations
Help Make Good Journalists Better
Donate to the National Press Foundation to help us keep journalists informed on the issues that matter most.