New restaurant nutrition labeling guidelines went into effect on May 7, 2018.
We’re used to seeing calorie information on menus and menu boards in many restaurants, yet until May 7, 2018, there were no standard national guidelines that applied to restaurants across the United States. According to Scott Gottlieb, MD, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Congress gave the FDA the responsibility to develop a uniform, national standard to ensure consistent access across the country to science-based calorie and nutrition information on restaurant menus and takeout foods in more than 200,000 restaurants.
Why is having calorie and nutrition information in restaurants important?
We currently consume about one-third of our calories away from home, which means that foods eaten away from home play a large role in our overall nutrition and health. A typical day might include stopping for coffee and breakfast on our way to work, eating lunch at a chain restaurant, picking up a snack at a convenience store on our way to our kids’ sporting event, or ending a busy day with take-out pizza from a favorite national brand.
A study by the RAND corporation found that people tend to choose foods with lower calories when they have access to calorie information. Routinely choosing foods with fewer calories can help reduce body weight, which is an important factor in health. FDA Commissioner Gottlieb notes that improving diet and nutrition is one of our most important opportunities to reduce chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
The FDA rule applies only to restaurants and retail food establishments that meet four criteria. They must...
- Have 20 or more locations
- Be doing business under the same name, regardless of the type of ownership (such as individual franchises)
- Sell substantially the same menu items
- Sell restaurant-type foods (defined, in part, as food that is usually eaten on the premises, while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location)
What nutrition information must be available?
The FDA rule requires that the number of calories per serving of food must be displayed on menus and menu boards.
Businesses also must be able to provide written information for total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, sugar, fiber and protein on request.
In addition, businesses must display two statements:
- Written nutrition information is available upon request.
- 2,000 calories per day is used for general nutrition advice, but individual calorie needs may vary.
Daily specials and temporary or seasonal foods are exempt from the new regulations.
Where will I find nutrition labeling for restaurant foods?
The federal rule applies only to chains with at least 20 locations, such as quick service restaurants like Dairy Queen and Popeye’s, fast casual restaurants like Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches or Panda Express, casual dining like Red Lobster and Texas Roadhouse, and family dining like Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. Your favorite chef-owned local restaurant may choose to provide nutrition labeling but is not required under this rule.
Convenience stores and grocery stores that are part of chains with over 20 locations and meet the other three requirements also must comply with the regulations. This means that my local Fry’s and Safeway grocery stores will display calorie information for foods such as packaged salads, foods from the deli, premade sandwiches, and self-serve donuts and pastries.
According to Restaurant Business Online, the top 20 chain restaurants based on total sales in 2016 in the United States include:
- Burger King
- Taco Bell
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- Pizza Hut
- Panera Bread
- Sonic Drive In
- Olive Garden
- Chipotle Mexican Grill
- Little Caesars
- Buffalo Wild Wings
- Chili’s Grill and Bar
What does this new menu labeling rule mean for consumers?
As we eat out more often and use more prepared foods instead of cooking from scratch at home, these food choices have a larger impact on our nutrition and health status.
It’s difficult to estimate the amount of calories in restaurant meals, and next to impossible to know the amount of important nutrients such as fiber, sodium, calcium and various vitamins important to health. We now have the opportunity to use the calorie and nutrition information in restaurants to help us make thoughtful choices about our food.
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on the public health benefits from enactment of menu labeling. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm606694.htm Posted 5-7-18; accessed 5-10-18.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Menu Labeling: Supplemental Guidance for Industry. https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/UCM583492.pdf Posted May 2018; accessed 5-10-18.
- Sturm, Roland, Haijing Crystal Huang, Flavia Tsang, Liisa Hiatt, Rosanna Smart, Cameron Wright, and Helen Wu, Examining Consumer Responses to Calorie Information on Restaurant Menus in a Discrete Choice Experiment. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1957.html.
- Restaurant Business Online. Top 250: The Ranking. http://www.restaurantbusinessonline.com/top-500-chains Accessed 5-10-18.
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.