Calorie counts are now required on menus and menu boards, and for food on display in chain restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores, and movie theaters.
The law also requires calorie labeling on more than 99 percent of the nation’s 5 to 6 million vending machines.
In 2002, nutrition and food safety groups began a campaign to help consumers make informed choices when eating out, which they deemed important because Americans are getting a third of their calories away from home.
In 2006, New York City became the first jurisdiction to adopt calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. After several court challenges, the law was implemented in 2008. Later that year, California passed the first state-wide menu labeling law. A total of more than 20 states, counties, and cities had enacted menu labeling policies.
In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest lobbied for, and the National Restaurant Association supported, including national menu labeling in the Affordable Care Act.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations to carry out the law were delayed several years before and after being finalized in 2014. The center and the National Consumers League filed a lawsuit in 2017 challenging the most recent delay of menu labeling regulations. It resulted in a court-approved agreement with the Trump administration setting a date in early May as the implementation date.
“Americans deserve to know what they’re getting when ordering for themselves and their families at chain restaurants, supermarkets, and other food establishments,” said Margo G. Wootan, center vice president for nutrition. “Menu labeling allows people an easy way to cut hundreds of calories or more with simple, split-second decisions.
Choosing the Four Cheese Pasta, with 1,190 calories, over the Louisiana Chicken Pasta, with 2,330 calories, at The Cheesecake Factory, for example, saves more than 1,000 calories, Wootan said. At Starbucks, a grande Caffè Mocha with whole milk and whipped cream has 400 calories – five times as many as a grande nonfat Cappuccino, with 80 calories.
A recent review of nearly 30 studies from the Cochrane Collaboration found that menu labeling helps people reduce their calories by about 50 calories per meal, on average. Another positive result: Some restaurants have reduced the calories in their foods after menu labeling was required.
In addition to seeing calories on menus, people can ask for information about sodium, saturated fat, sugar, and other nutrients, which need to be available in writing. Menus and menu boards also are required to put the calorie numbers into context, by posting a statement that “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”
Some restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Panera, and Starbucks, rolled out menu labeling nationally as more state and local policies passed, and by May 2017, the original national implementation date, all of the top chains were providing calorie information in-store or online. However, some chains, such as Domino’s, and the supermarket and convenience store industries have worked to weaken menu labeling, she said.