The Buzz: Menu Labeling

What’s the buzz?

You’ll now get a side of calorie information with your burger and fries in many restaurants.

What do the law and the science say?

Not so fast. Although the food industry is abuzz with the news that providing calories on (some) restaurant menus is now mandatory, not every location must comply and not for every item. The federal regulation, which went into effect on May 7, 2018, requires all restaurants with more than 20 locations to display calorie information on items that are on their menu for more than 60 days per year. So, expect to see calorie information on items like a cheese pizza or turkey sandwich, but not necessarily on the daily catch.

The newly enacted policy is actually 15 years in the making, with health advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) leading the movement by encouraging both food manufacturers and government agencies to make calorie information mandatory. The hope is that sharing this information will encourage consumers to make healthier choices and in turn play a role in reducing weight-related health problems.

In addition, it is possible that as the restaurant industry reformulates recipes to meet increasing demands for healthier options, we might start to see more grain bowls and cauliflower tacos on menus  — at least that’s what many public health officials are hoping. And according to one recent study, we’ve already started to see a trend toward fewer “calorie bomb” items on menus.

Evidence that calories on restaurant menus make consumers think twice before ordering that double cheeseburger is thin (sorry) and results are mixed. A large meta-analysis conducted in 2017 found that calories on menus didn’t change the quantity or quality of calories that consumers ate. However, other studies reviewed in early 2018 found that nutrition labeling did reduce the number of calories purchased. More research is needed to determine how calorie information affects consumers’ choices.

Although many are celebrating the menu labeling regulation, not everyone is jumping for joy. The National Eating Disorders Association has been vocal in its opposition, stating that calorie information on menus is shame inducing and may trigger disordered eating patterns. Others claim that menu calorie information is weak without context around how many calories are needed in a day (not everyone needs the 2,000 calorie number noted on the disclaimer) or the quality of those calories.

What’s the takeaway?

Expect to see calorie information listed at some of your favorite restaurants (including your Bon Appétit cafés!); however, we have yet to see how this information will truly affect consumer behavior. Keep in mind, while calories can help you to decipher healthier menu options, they don’t tell you the full story about how nutritious the dish actually is.

Read on for more information about menu labeling here.