CSPI Hails Proposed Menu Labeling Regulations


Ten years after starting a movement to put calories on chain restaurant menus and menu boards, the Center for Science in the Public Interest strongly supports the proposed menu labeling regulations released by the Food and Drug Administration.

The new regulations are required by the health care reform law enacted last March, which requires chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post calories on menus and menu boards, and to provide additional nutrition information in writing upon request. The proposed rules released today are expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

"A number of things contribute to obesity, but studies show that eating out is linked to higher calorie intakes and higher body weights," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan. "Without nutrition information, how are people supposed to know that some salads have more calories than some burgers? Or that some ‘appetizers’ pack a thousand or more calories?"

Studies show that providing nutrition information for packaged foods and restaurant foods has a positive influence on food-purchase decisions. While a few recent studies have found no effect, small studies lack enough statistical power to measure the public health effect that can be expected from menu labeling.

One of the best studies was conducted by researchers at Stanford University. They found that menu labeling in New York City resulted in a 6 percent decrease in calories on average per transaction (for people buying more calories, the effect was bigger, a 26 percent decrease) at Starbucks. The researchers estimated that if people made similar changes at other chain restaurants, that would result in a 30-calorie per person per day decrease population-wide. "That is an important finding given that the obesity epidemic is probably fueled by about an extra 100 calories per person per day." Wootan said.

Menu labeling laws have been passed in 18 states, cities, and counties and are in effect in Vermont, California, New York City, Philadelphia, and King County, Wash. As a result of the laws that have been implemented, many restaurants, including Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Taco Bell, Uno Chicago Grill, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, and others have reformulated menu items or added new lower-calorie choices.

CSPI is disappointed that the proposed regulations excluded movie theaters and alcohol from the proposed menu labeling regulations, but will press the FDA to include them in the final regulation.

"If a movie theater is going to serve up thousand-calorie tubs of popcorn, 400-calorie drinks, and 400-calorie boxes of candy, the least they could do is tell you about it," Wootan said. "Also, it will be confusing to customers if soft drinks are labeled on menus, but alcoholic drinks like beer and wine aren’t."