National Consumers League

An early holiday gift from the FDA: menu labeling

Ever wonder just how caloric that notorious grande mocha frappuccino is or how many calories are lurking in your Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzel? Well those questions just got a lot easier to answer.  Today, the FDA released final menu labeling rules for retail food chains and vending machines with 20 or more locations. Movie theaters, pizza parlors and convenience stores are also covered under these new regulations. While some cities and states already have menu labeling requirements (New York required chain restaurants to start labeling in 2006), the FDA’s rule is nationwide making it a huge win for consumers.

What really made us consumer advocates giddy though was the inclusion of alcohol beverages on restaurant menus, an unexpected and tough measure. Alcohol is the six largest source of calories among Americans, with the average individual consuming a shocking 3.8 percent of all calories from alcohol. The rules also applied to convenience stores and grocery stores for foods that are intended to feed one person. Foods like bread and rotisserie chicken, which constitute as more than a meal, were not included.   

The jury is still out on how menu labeling affects total calorie consumption, with some studies showing reduced consumption and others showing no change. What has become very clear is the consumer desire to make calorie amounts more visible. The National Restaurant Association had great foresight in advocating for the federal standard alongside consumer advocates in an effort to avoid varying laws put in place by cities and states. 

Labeling calorie counts on menus is a strong consumer education tool. According to the FDA, one third of the calories American’s eat or drink are consumed away from the home. While the long term outcomes of menu labeling are unknown, consumers’ ability to access information that affects their health is the first step in the direction of a healthier America. 

Consumers can expect to see the rule take effect a year from now for restaurants and two years for vending machines.  It is likely these rules will continue to face legal and political challenges in some parts of the food industry.