by Marion Nestle
Apr 1 2013

Menu labeling: What’s new?

Today I’m doing a roundup of items about menu labels.  Remember them?

The President signed calorie labels into law when he signed the health care act more than three years ago.

The FDA has still not issued rules for them.

Where are they?

The Associated Press tried to find out.

It quotes FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg :

There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side, and we have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable…menu labeling has turned out to be one of the FDA’s most challenging issues.

Why?  The restaurant and food industries don’t like it.  They want exemptions for movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys and other businesses whose primary business is not to sell food.   And alcohol, of course.

And rumors continue that the White House Office of Management and Budget is holding them up.

Will menu labels work?

They certainly work for me.

And it looks like they might work for other people too, especially if accompanied by traffic-light labels indicating calorie levels.  Or so says a recent study from Oklahoma State.

Calorie counts most influenced purchases when accompanied by a green light label for foods with less than 400 calories, a yellow label for foods with between 401 and 800 calories, and a red label on those with more than 800 calories.

Are the posted calorie amounts accurate?

With just a few exceptions, they are close enough not to worry about, says Consumer Reports.

Come on, FDA, get the rules out so everybody can have as much fun with these as I do.

  • I agree, Marion. Menu labeling is long overdue. The majority of people have no idea how many restaurant dishes have over 1,000 calories and several days’ worth of fat and salt.

    Awareness here is key. Let them know what’s in the food they’re eating … demand for these high-calorie monstrosities goes down … and we improve health outcomes.

    Why is this so complicated for them to figure out? Seems like another case of $ and big business interests trumping public health.

  • I think the time is coming when consumers will demand them – and I hope restaurateurs will recognize that they are turning customers away by not providing this information. We aren’t there yet – but just think how reliant so many people now are on the labeling of products in the supermarket aisle for nutrition information.

  • Howie G

    What optimism! Posting calories – which are nothing more than random numbers to most people and most people can’t add 3 numbers in their head without grabbing a pen and paper – is going to put a dent into obesity? No, wait – we also need green, yellow, red traffic lights next to the calories to better explain what food should be eaten? If we ate 3 meals at 400 calories most of us would be significantly below the amount of calories we need to live. So then what will happen – over eating at the next meal. Especially when we focus only on calories rather than knowing how much satiating fiber, protein or fat is in the food. With this system we’ll need more symbols – one explaining if the food for sale is a meal or snack (b/c at 400 calories it is a high calorie snack but a low calorie meal). And what about the quality calories? Should people be concerned about 100- 150 calories is the meal is nutrient dense and packed with fiber? Do we even know if the calories labeled are actually absorbed? Do we even now how to calculate calories? Last time I checked we were still using Atwater – and Marion, even you would agree that was bunk science. Why obsess a nation on random calorie numbers instead of putting efforts towards behavior change. We all know – or we should – that if people are eating out every day or loading up on crap food then they have a bigger problem then what’s for dinner – their lifestyle needs a complete overhaul. Will we ever stop putting limited resources behind silver bullet ideas rather than focusing on a comprehensive plan to reeducate the nation?

  • I think this is an excellent idea. I’m not so sure about just an emphasis on calories as I try to get people away from obsessing about calories and rather, as they say, make your CALORIES COUNT rather than counting your calories. I think salt, sugar and total fat content may be valuable additions. Is that asking too much?!
    I wonder if Health Canada is thinking about this?
    Dr. Thalia Charney

  • Garth

    Will upscale restaurants also be required to put scary red labels next to every entree on the menu? They should. Those joints are where you really can get your load on what with everything made of butter and heavy cream, seared in olive oil, basted with butter and olive oil, plated with a deep slathering of olive oil, served up with a salad drenched to dripping with olive oil, literally floating in the stuff — at 120 calories per tblspoon it adds up pretty fast. Then there is the added salt. Many tres chic ristorante entrees make McDonalds and Outback look like diet food. There are plenty of overweight and obese people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a fast food joint or a convenience store. We mustn’t overlook the need to regulate them, right?

  • Menu labeling will work even better, as our experience over 8 years shows, if people are aware of their measured personal metabolic rate.
    We also observed that recommendations for daily caloric intake based on calculated mean values, which can markedly and unpredictably differ from the real ones (*see link), create confusion and facilitate undesirable weight gain even eating healthy foods. This is also the simple reason why our programm (we call “Calogenetic Balance”) is based on measured resting metabolic rate (RMR) to assess personal daily caloric needs.

    We are going to present our data on 207 people at the next ECO in Liverpool (12-15 May). Thereafte, I will send you the detailed data.
    The most relevant subjective statement by all participants was that the familiarity with the own real metabolic capacity gives security, removes confusion and promotes motivation and adherence.


  • Marcus G

    Can you please discuss the process that companies go through to get their reported calories? Does everything have to be burned in a calorimeter or can estimates be made using the calories of known ingredients? Also what is the standard error in calorimeter measurements? Looks like about 20% from this chart.

  • Will menu labels work?

    They certainly work for me.

    I am shocked, I would think that an expert like you would have a close enough idea that the info would not help.

  • Will food labeling work? It should work. I count all my calories and already having them on the menu will make documenting them that much easier.

  • Dan

    To answer Marcus’s question, the USDA already provides a food database (USDA SR-25) which contains all of the macro and micro nutrients of food. So all the restaurant and food vendors have to do is to enter the ingredients they use in their recipe. For example, 300 grams chicken breast, 20g sugar, 2g salt.

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  • And a valuable but rarely mentioned benefit – making nutrition info easily available is extremely helpful for people with Type 1 diabetes who absolutely must know grams of carbs in order to determine insulin dosage.

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