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If you’ve eaten in a chain restaurant over the past year, then you’ve gotten used to seeing menu labeling. In May 2018, it became a federal law (after a decade of indecision) that food establishments with 20 or more locations must comply with menu labeling laws. That’s why you now know that a Big Mac has 563 calories, and a Starbucks Vanilla Latte has 200.

If you’re a restaurant owner with a growing number of locations, you should get familiar with FDA menu labeling guidance as it could affect your business in the near future. Even if you’re an independent restaurant owner just starting out, menu labeling is something to think about in our ever-evolving health-conscious world.

Learn more about how the menu nutrition labeling law came to be, what it entails, and why you might want to make it a part of your restaurant business strategy.

The Path to the FDA’s Menu Labeling Law

Menu labeling laws were conceived as a way to allow people to make informed, and potentially healthier, choices when dining out. With an obesity epidemic in this country, public health advocates surmised that people might not even realize how many calories they are consuming outside the home. So by giving them that information up-front, consumers could take control of their meal planning. Even if they ultimately choose a not-so-healthy option while out, knowing the number of calories they consumed might impact the decisions they make for the rest of the day.

Of course, any time laws like this are proposed, there is a lot of public debate and research that goes along with it. On the one hand, public health groups feel that knowledge is power, and consumers have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies. On the other side, some feel that forcing businesses to comply with such regulations is unfair and costly, as well as a means to police people’s choices.

Chefs discussing optimized menu on clipboard in commercial restaurant kitchen

This is why menu labeling has taken over 10 years to become federal law. Prior to that, there was a variety of menu labeling laws in cities and states. The leader in the movement was New York City, which became the first jurisdiction to implement a law requiring chain restaurants to add calorie labeling to their menus and menu boards. After several court challenges, the law was implemented in 2008. It was almost identical to the existing federal law, except that it enforced the requirement for restaurants with 15 or more locations (instead of 20). 

The next area to follow suit was California, which created the first state-wide menu labeling law in 2008. As the trend began catching on, more than 20 states, counties, and cities enacted their own menu labeling policies. 

Even beyond those areas, some of the country’s major restaurant and food chains took it upon themselves to add menu labeling, realizing that it was just a matter of time for the law to become national. As of May 2017 (which is when the federal law was originally supposed to go into effect), the top 50 chains had already added calorie information to their in-store and online menus, including McDonald’s, Starbucks, IHOP, Applebees, etc.

All the while, the Affordable Care Act menu labeling item was being discussed and debated. Finally, in May 2018, the menu labeling law became a nationwide rule, trumping any existing state and local requirements.

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What the Menu Labeling Law Entails

So you already know that restaurants with 20 or more locations must do menu labeling. But what exactly does that entail?  For starters, they must follow FDA menu labeling guidance, which says they have to disclose how many calories are contained in their regularly featured menu items.

This calorie information has to appear on the posted menu board in the restaurant, at drive-through windows, on menus that are handed out to diners, and in online menus. It should provide calorie information for everything from entrees to apps to dessert to beverages, as well as add-ons like sauces. The rules also apply to self-serve food establishments. Limited time menu items may be exempt.

In addition to the calorie information, these restaurants must also make other nutritional information available upon request. This includes information on total fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber, and protein. Oftentimes, you’ll find that chain restaurants include this information on their websites. Some even feature tools that allow you to “build” a complete meal so you can see the entire nutritional contents.

Finally, menu labeling law mandates that restaurants display two statements. First, that nutritional information is available upon request, and second, that 2,000 calories a day is the generally recommended daily calorie intake, but needs vary.

Chef And Waitress Discussing Menu In Restaurant

The Pros and Cons of Labeling

If you don’t own a chain restaurant, you probably don’t have to worry about menu labeling for now. If the law were ever to change to affect all restaurants, it’s likely that it would take years and years. The fact is menu labeling can be a costly and time-consuming process. Not only to calculate all of the nutritional values but then having to redo all of your menus.

That being said, it might be in your best interest to partially adopt the menu labeling laws for your healthy menu choices, even if it’s not required. While a Gallup Poll found that just 45% of Americans say they pay “a great deal” or “a fair amount” (29%) of attention to nutrition details at restaurants, you don’t want to alienate almost half of your health-conscious patrons. They will appreciate having more details about the lighter fare options you are already serving up – and it may even give those items a boost.

If you notice that your customers are asking more questions about nutritional values and how food is prepared, try your best to be transparent. While you don’t necessarily have to include that information in print on your menu, you can educate your wait staff and have them offer interested diners options and modifications that can reduce their calorie intake. That might be subbing steamed veggies in place of fries, or preparing a menu item without butter or extra salt.

If you do have to add menu labeling to your restaurants, your first step is to be fully compliant. But you can also use it as an opportunity to highlight some of your more nutritious items that perhaps weren’t getting as much attention.

Keeping up with the menu calorie labeling law, whether you have to follow it or not, is a smart business practice. Even if you serve more indulgent fare, it’s always a good idea to keep your health-conscious patrons in mind, so you can be ready to serve them well.

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Dawn Papandrea is freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Family Circle, WomansDay.com, and more. She loves trying new restaurants with her family and friends in her spare time.