Calorie Counts at Last Coming to Chain Restaurants

Menu Labeling Proponents Pleased that Supermarkets, Convenience Stores, Movie Theaters, & Alcohol Covered Under Final Rule


Calorie counts will become permanent fixtures on America's chain-restaurant menus and menu boards in about a year when new regulations, released in final form today by the Food and Drug Administration, take effect. The rules apply to chains with 20 or more outlets nationally, including supermarkets, convenience stores, and movie theaters, which also sell restaurant-type foods. Calorie counts will also be posted on tags for salad bars, bakery items, and soda dispensers, and a companion rule requires calorie labeling for vending machines.

The final rules are the culmination of a decade-long movement for better nutrition information at restaurant chains—a movement that began in state legislatures with stops along the way in New York CityPhiladelphiaCalifornia, and fifteen other states and counties, and finally in Congress, which in 2010 included a menu labeling provision in the Affordable Care Act. Menu labeling has been a top priority of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which led and coordinated passage of many local and state, as well as the national, menu labeling laws. The national law was the result of a bipartisan compromise brokered by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), CSPI, the National Restaurant Association, and top chain restaurants.

"Menu labeling is the biggest advance in providing nutrition information to consumers since the law that required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods was implemented 20 years ago," CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan said. "It will soon seem strange that once it was possible to go into a Chick-fil-A or a Denny's and not see calories on menus and menu boards. We hope that small chains and independent restaurants provide the same information voluntarily."

Studies demonstrate links between eating out and less healthful diets and obesity. Local calorie-labeling rules already in effect plus the prospect of the national rules has encouraged some chains to reformulate certain menu items and add new items with fewer calories. Some studies have not found an effect on consumers' choices, but others have found a meaningful decline in calories ordered.

CSPI applauded the Administration for resisting efforts by supermarket and convenience store chains, movie theaters, and the pizza industry to weaken calorie labeling in those sectors. "We hope that supermarkets, convenience stores, and the pizza industry will end their aggressive lobby efforts to get out of meaningful menu labeling and simply provide the nutrition information that their customers want and need," said Wootan.

Movie theaters in particular were not included in a draft form of the menu-labeling rules, but chains such as Regal are increasingly selling restaurant-type items like hot dogs and pizza, as well as 1,200-calorie tubs of popcorn. Chain restaurants will also be required to disclose calorie counts for alcoholic beverages listed on menus—important, since alcohol is the fifth-biggest source of calories for adults, and some concoctions, like Mudslides at chains like T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee's, can have north of 700 calories.

"Calories on restaurant menus will help Americans—who are getting about a third of their calories from away-from-home foods—choose for themselves how many calories they really want when eating out," said Wootan. "It’s also going to continue to be an incentive for restaurant chains to innovate and offer consumers healthier choices."

The final rule requiring calorie labeling on vending machines is not what the law calls for. The law clearly spells out that calorie counts for vended items be in close proximity to each item or its selection button. The final regulations merely require a poster with calorie information somewhere near vending machines. To ensure that people have visible, useful calorie information for vended options, CSPI is considering a lawsuit against the FDA to bring that provision in line with the statute.