Watch your calories: US menu labeling rules take effect

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08 May 2018 --- The US Food & Drug Administration’s menu labeling rules have officially taken effect, requiring chain restaurants, coffeehouses and other eateries to list how many calories are in the foods on offer. To help businesses comply with the new rules, the government body yesterday also finalized existing guidance that it says provides additional clarity and details requested by the food industry on the FDA’s thinking on various topics related to the new regulation.

The menu labeling rules include establishments that “are chains with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name that offer substantially the same menu items consisting of restaurant-type foods.” 

“Consumers can also ask these establishments for additional nutritional information – provided, for example, as a booklet, handout or in electronic form – that includes the amount of sodium, fiber, sugars, total carbohydrates, saturated fat and protein for any standard menu item,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., says in a statement. 

The changes in the final guidance include expanded and new examples of how to comply with the menu labeling requirements. The guidance includes pictures of the approach that covered establishments can take, under FDA’s regulation, in choosing how to display calories on menus and menu boards. 

The agency’s goal is to give establishment owners clear, efficient ways to deliver this information to consumers. 

“Overall, the guidance clarifies that posters, billboards, coupon mailings and other marketing materials are generally not considered menus that would require calorie counts under our regulation. It also provides other practical and flexible options for implementing the regulation, such as graphical depictions to illustrate ways to post calories for multiple items on a single sign, such as those that might be features at a self-service buffet or beverage stations,” Gottlieb notes.

Although the idea behind the new rules is to help Americans make informed decisions about the foods they eat, there is still debate around whether menu labeling will actually benefit consumers’ health.

In the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, for example, researchers from New York University have noted that despite the rapid and widespread adoption of policies to require calorie counts at restaurants, most studies of calorie labels in fast-food restaurants in places that have already adopted labeling, including New York, have found little evidence that fast-food consumers are changing their behaviors in response to the labels. 

On the other hand, research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania suggested in 2016 that adding color-coded or numeric calorie labels to online food ordering systems can help reduce the total calories ordered by about 10 percent when compared to menus featuring no calorie information at all. 

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