by Marion Nestle
Jul 7 2014

Use of menu labeling: baseline data from USDA

USDA has a report out on consumers’ use of nutrition information in restaurants before the menu labeling law goes into effect.

What law?  The menu-labeling provision that is part of the Affordable Care Act still—four years later—waiting for the FDA to get around to issuing final rules (I last wrote about this in April 2013).

In 2011, the FDA proposed rules for public comment, and proposed final rules in 2013:

These too were opened for public comment with the process expected to be completed in February 2014.  Oops.  Missed that one.

Rumors are that the FDA is under pressure from pizza chains and movie theaters to be exempt from the final rules, and that the White House is holding them up.  The White House has had them for 90 days.  That’s supposed to be the limit.

According to Politico Pro Agriculture

It was three months ago today that the White House first received FDA’s final rules for calorie labels on menus and vending machines, and by the Office of Management and budget’s own rules, that means time is up. Interagency review at OMB is supposed to take no more than 90 days before the final release of a measure, though that timeframe is often extended with little explanation on more controversial initiatives. While OMB is always mum on its schedule for rule reviews and releases, the end of the standard review period is sometimes a hint that something will be coming, if not today — the day before a long weekend — then soon. In the meantime, brush up on the issue here: and here:

In the meantime, the USDA has done some research and come up with some interesting findings:

Among people who eat out, the ones most likely to use nutrition information on menu boards are those who:

  • Eat out less frequently
  • Have other healthy behaviors (such as having dark green vegetables at home).
  • Rate their diets as good.
  • Are women.
  • Participate in SNAP.

SNAP participants?  Really?  If true, SNAP participants are more eager for calorie information than the general population, and good for them!

These results explain much about the confusing findings from studies of New York City’s menu labeling law.  These generally find no overall effect although calorie labels have a big effect on people who are conscious of health to begin with (me, for example).

FDA: how about getting out the final rules?  Then we can sit back and watch USDA economists compare what’s happening to these baseline results.

  • We are very into healthy eating, local eating and scratch cooking. My husband is a chef and I’m just as passionate about real food. I never pay even look at calories and nutrition labels. What I care more about is the ingredient list and whether there are artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives. Ingredient lists can make or break our family going to any particular restaurant or buying a product at a store; calories I couldn’t care less about. As long as it is made of real food, we just operate on a common sense model regarding how much to eat and whether or not to follow it up with an exercise session.

  • I hate to admit this but I’m surprised SNAP participants make the list of those consumers most interested in nutritional information. It’s frustrating how convoluted the USDA and FDA is making getting basic nutritional education and information out to the general population.

  • Howie G

    A calorie-centric approach to dieting doesn’t work. Never did. The US Gov’t is decades behind an approach that most people have already thrown to the waste side. There’s more to foods than calories – and, I question the method that is used to determine the caloric density of foods (have you seen the almond studies on calorie absorption?). Sad part is – there is NO solution. That is, as long as we continue to allow people to eat whatever they want we will not become a healthier nation (we’ll just find pills and operations to keep our health in check). I’m not saying that we should stifle food innovations or put regulations on what people can buy/eat. Just that we recognize that there really is no solution and all we have been doing for decades is chasing our tails – or the nub at the end of our spine that was once a tail. Maybe that’s the solution? If we actually grew our tail back, maybe people would chase it in circles and finally get a little exercise in their lives…

  • StellaBarbone

    Now that I have reached an age where I have to count calories, I really prefer restaurants that post calorie counts. Admittedly they are approximate, but they are helpful in making better choices. Salads for instance, often thought of as “healthy”, can be real calorie bombs. For me, calorie information has become a positive selling point for a restaurant.

  • StellaBarbone

    That worked well for me in my 20s and 30s, too, but not after that. For the first 10 or 15 years of adulthood, provided that one has the time and organizational ability to exercise and cook, and provided that one doesn’t loathe those activities, it may well work for others. Except, of course, those for whom it doesn’t work.

    “Eating well” is the latest bit of snobbery directed at the obese.

  • Paul Farrar

    I’d much rather have an ingredient list. The only thing I need the nutrition information for is the sugar content. That’s really about the only thing you need the amount of. (Cholesterol? Who cares. Your liver controls your blood lipids, not your diet. Although, I suppose it is a good indicator of high-quality animal fat with lots of good vitamins.) Unfortunately, ingredient lists tended to be treated as trade secrets in the restaurant industry, and the government tends to go along on trade secret claims.

  • Pingback: Chart junk from the USDA – Stat Moments()

  • Brian Klein

    No one ever has to count calories. It can be informative and helpful, but when you learn to trust your instincts about quantity you will be much better off. If you look at almost any traditional society, they were lean and strong. They didn’t have labels on the foods they hunted, gathered and grew. Yet they remained healthy. We’re making something very easy into something over engineered. (I admit, it’s not easy in the food climate we are embroiled in today. When you are faced with eating whatever food is left over from the day’s gathering vs a box of food engineered specifically to tie into our food reward mechanisms, it becomes very difficult.) I use the salmon and broccoli test. If I don’t feel like eating salmon or broccoli, I am likely not hungry.

  • StellaBarbone

    Traditional societies eat in restaurants?

  • TR

    Get a little exercise? I thought you said there is NO solution.

  • TR

    Remember, there are corporate lobbyists twisting the USDA’s and FDA’s figurative arm. That’s what this whole article is really about. Remember how the Cattleman and Ranchers Assoc. sued the USDA over the Food Guide Pyramid years ago? As if the Cattleman and Ranchers Assoc. didn’t have anything better to be spending their money on than lawywers and lobbyists. But,if they end up increasing the cost of meat in order to keep their precious lawyers on staff, I won’t shed a tear.

  • TR

    Oh sure, Brian, diabetics don’t have to worry about the quantity of carbs they consume, Doctors don’t have to be concerned about the calories going into their patient they have on TPN- just for a couple quick obvious examples. Sure, we should all listen to you since you’ve got it all figured out based on your narrow assumptions like the energy expended by hunter gatherer people is the same as those expended by sedentary americans who park their suvs as close to the store’s front door as possible. Hunter-gatherer people also experienced times of famine on a regular basis. During such times, they would have burned off all that fat they gained during times of plenty. Ever see a wild goose with the same amount of body fat as a free-range farm raised goose?

  • Howie G

    Please read my post before commenting. I said: ” Sad part is – there is NO solution. That is, as long as we continue to allow people to eat whatever they want we will not become a healthier nation (we’ll just find pills and operations to keep our health in check)” — so I did propose a solution…

  • Brian Klein

    Knowing your carb tolerance is a key issue for diabetics. I didn’t say that it wasn’t. I did say that knowing calorie counts can be informative and helpful. But I suggested that people can learn to figure out how much they need to eat through paying attention to the cues given to them by their body. And you can overdo it with real food and become obese or diabetic if you don’t pay attention to cues. But you are less likely to go for that salmon than you are for the cheetos or snickers bar. And even in the realm of “real food,” what you eat is more important than how much you eat. Unless you are grossly overeating, or your metabolism is extremely off kilter. Then both can be important.

    Calorie counting is a very rudimentary form of measuring what happens to food when it enters our system. Not all calories are the same. And it doesn’t take into account micro-nutrients, minerals and a bevy of other systems that take place when you eat a given food. There’s a great series of posts on that details out some of the processes that occur in our bodies when we eat different foods.

    The points you bring up about our sedentary lives are valid. We should absolutely be looking to traditional societies for some inspiration on how to live, because even though we may live longer (on average), we don’t live as healthfully as they do (did). Let’s walk and move heavy things more. Let’s know what it feels like to have true hunger and fast from time to time. Let’s learn to respect nature and be gracious for what it gives us.

  • Have the federal menu labeling laws for chains (sec 4205 of the Affordable Care Act) been implemented yet? Do they remain in dispute with pizza chains and movie theatres challenging the laws? Are chains bound by the laws yet?