Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Menu labeling coming next year

Thumbnail image for menulabeling.JPG

The prevention proposals in the health-care bill haven't gotten enough attention, including from me. But Marion Nestle makes a good catch here: One of the bill's provisions is a menu labeling proposal for chain restaurants with more than 20 locations. The proposal requires chains to post the caloric content of each item (and the total calories of combo meals) next to its listing on the menu, the menu board, and even the drive-through menu kiosk. This goes into effect next year, and will be one of the most visible effects of the health-care bill. You can read the provision here (pdf).

The early evidence on menu labeling has been undeniably mixed, but this is good information for people to have. In 20 years, I think we'll be baffled that there was a time when it wasn't easily available to us.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Ou.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 23, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Is there a legal case against the health-care bill?
Next: Transparency and the health-care reform bill


The first link is broken for me. Just points to http:// .

Posted by: jleh | March 23, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, whether this works or not to reduce obesity it's information that consumers should have conveniently available to them. No pushing appetizing pictures of your products in consumers faces while hiding the negative consequences on a poster by the bathroom.

Posted by: MosBen | March 23, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

What I'd like to see is labelling on food products that contain high fructose corn syrup similar to the labelling on packs of smokes.

It'll never happen, but I'd like it.

Posted by: nisleib | March 23, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

more stupid nit-picking rules that will require those businesses to spend additional $$ to redo their menus because of Government big-brother rules. How does one say, dislike?

Posted by: alutz08 | March 23, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

This is really lame. The science doesn't support it yet they're moving ahead with it. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of OCD/eating disorder recovery knows that this is a terrible, terrible idea and the equivalent of showing videos of drownings to a bunch of hydrophobes and then asking them to jump in the pool.

I don't think the information shouldn't be available, it should, but not right on the menu, particularly when the science doesn't support it anyway.

Posted by: ThomasEN | March 23, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I'm pro-menu-labeling... but also pro-free-speech. The Federal authorities must now prove that the advertising restriction meets "the Central Hudson test for acceptable governmental regulation of commercial speech." See (for example) Thompson v. Western States Medical Center, 535 U.S. 357 (2002) for a similar situation involving cosmetics.

As stated in your message, "the early evidence on menu labeling has been undeniably mixed". This might suggest that the restriction on freedom of speech might not yet be warranted.

Posted by: rmgregory | March 23, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I don't think people always choose the lowest calorie item. However, now that I know I selected a high calorie count item, I will balance it out with smaller meals, healthier snacks for the rest of the day.
I do think it makes restaurants pay more attention to the calories in their meals. I know when I worked at a restaurant in college they had a veggie platter (cooked and raw) that was dripping in butter, salt and fat. I don't know how many people ordered it because they thought it was the healthy option. The restaurant could have gotten much the same effect by using different preparation methods and ended with a similar taste. If they had to put down the calories, they absolutely would have.

Posted by: cminmd1 | March 23, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Damn your Nanny State, what with the giving adults information with which they can make decisions about what to eat!!!

Pol Pot would be so proud!

Posted by: antontuffnell | March 23, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

i agree 100% with MosBen!

I also loved the commercial that was taken off the air with what "fat" looks like inside a person's body. If that doesn't have you put down the Cheeto-s nothing will. They should treat it just like smoking. It worked to curb smoking and the obesity epidemic is much worse than that and costlier.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 23, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I actually find it pretty helpful to have the caloric value written down on the menu. It effects my eating habits when I'm out and I balance my meal, depending on what I want most (like ordering the salad w/ light dressing so I can have that apple brown betty I've been craving).

For the restaurants that will have to comply, I doubt the cost will be prohibitive, since most already operate in areas with menu labeling requirements. Besides, the National Restaurant Association supports the provision/big-brother rules.

Posted by: gmart68b | March 23, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I hope they just tell me how to live my life all the way from start to finish one day. After this they will require restaurants to teach everyone what calories mean and what fat does to you - right? What is the point of showing the calories when 50% of the patrons have no clue what that means. The funny thing is that the 50% who do know what it means likely will not benefit from the labeling! Why don't they just make a law that allocates a certain number of calories to each person each day. That would reduce healthcare costs for everyone and we would all be better off - right?

Posted by: Holla26 | March 23, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

This has been the law in my state for some time. I shrugged when it originally passed, but once the information went up, I found that I was very happy to have it.

I am consistently surprised by some of the numbers (especially how two menu items that I expect to have similar calorie counts are often very different), and I know that I am making more informed decisions.

Information is a good thing.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 23, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

You see, the problem is that the information is unhelpfully presented. A column of numbers, with no context. How are Bubba, Bertha and their, uh, little ones supposed to interpret the numbers while waddling, admittedly slowly, up to the counter?

What you need is visual information. Next to each item you need a picture of a person. The more the calories, the fatter the person in the picture. The more generally unhealthy the food, the more anemic the pictured person. That way Bubba and Bertha can point at the pictures and say, Brother Eugene, do you want to look like Brad Pitt or Paul Giamatti? Sister Sue, Rosie O'Donnell or Jessica Alba?

Posted by: ostap666 | March 23, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

"I hope they just tell me how to live my life all the way from start to finish one day."

I agree with Holla26: Ignorance is freedom. There's nothing worse than making sure adults have the information they need to make informed decisions.


Posted by: antontuffnell | March 23, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I think part of the reason menu labeling has been mixed is that right now they're on a clustered sign on a separate wall, so most people never look at them (my wife didn't even know they existed until I recently pointed them out). This would put the calories in people's faces, and I bet leads to more healthy selections from fast food restaurants.

In the same way that having the price on the menu causes cheaper Americans (like myself) to scan for the cheapest items and then select from those, I could see more weight-conscious customers scanning the calorie count for the lower numbers before deciding on their meal.

Posted by: eflynt | March 23, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm mixed on this whole issue.

Personally, I'm an information junkie and so I like having it available. On the other hand, I've never been a huge fan of business mandates, particularly when there is no solid evidence backing the original justification for the mandate.

I think Ezra made a lot of good points in the post he linked to (his older post on menu labeling). The obesity epidemic is particularly acute amongst those with lower incomes - who might well take more calories for the same price as a great deal.

Pretty much everyone knows that restaurant food and fast food in particular has tons of calories. People often underestimate the actual number of calories, but no one I can think of walks into a McDonalds and orders two cheeseburgers, fries and a coke is doing so under the impression that said meal is a light, healthy choice.

Seeing the actual numbers on the board may or may not do a whole lot. Most people already know McDonalds is unhealthy, and so if they're already in the building, the numbers on the board probably don't bother them that much. Anyone who would believes a McDonalds meal consisting of burgers and fries isn't that bad from a health perspective probably isn't going to be persuaded otherwise by some numbers on the menu - the numbers might only indicate to them the best deals (e.g. Big Mac has 800 calories for $2.99, but the $1 double cheeseburger has 550, so I can max my calories by buying double cheeseburgers).

Posted by: justin84 | March 23, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

By "undeniably mixed," Ezra of course means, "clearly ineffective." The reality-based evidence is that these labels do not change people's eating habits. And the unintended consequences will be public-interest lawsuits against restaurants over discrepancies of 5 calories. But it makes Ezra feel like he's smart.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 23, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Well, everybody is different. Having the calories listed on the menu tends to change my behavior because, even if I know what I'm eating is fattening, if I can skip looking at the calories before I eat it, I'm more likely to say: "Out of sight, out of mind."

However, as the results are undeniably mixed, I suspect it's a case of trade-offs. For some people, it will be better. For other people, it will be worse. It may have no overall impact on obesity, but I'm pretty sure it will benefit me, personally. So . . . go for it!

This is coming, anyway. Has been for a while. If it wasn't in this bill, it would be in another, next year.

"In 20 years, I think we'll be baffled that there was a time when it wasn't easily available to us."

Now, this is so true. It's amazing how accustomed you become to certain societal changes, in a relatively short period. I was going through some pictures the other day that I shot at a local mall, when I was in high school, 26 years ago. Everyone (including plenty of underage high school students) are smoking in those pictures. Multiple ashtrays by every bench.

Now, if I saw someone smoking in a mall, I'd be shocked, and start looking around for the mall cops running out to put that lawbreaker in mall jail.

I remember everybody smoking--in class--at my college, only 23 years ago. Including the instructor. I'm pretty sure the entire campus is no-smoking now.

One day, in the not too distant future, we'll see some old menu without the calorie counts (and probably fat and salt breakdowns) and be nostalgic. Remember when menus didn't feature complete nutritional information for ever part of a meal, and weren't 50 pages?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 23, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

California implemented this and I'll say it makes a difference when you go into a chain restaurant like Appleby's or Chili's. If you're out to gorge yourself, then fine, but it also points out where those healthy-sounding menu options really aren't.

Ezra, you recommended Dr. David Kessler's book "The End of Overeating" when it came out in 2009. Dr. Kessler discusses the issues of layering among salt, fat, and sugar used by the larger chain restaurants to hook their customers. This measure tries to at least inform people of the addictive brew of artifical and natural ingredients going into their mouth, which is a good first step toward reversing the trend of obesiety in our country.

Posted by: Jaycal | March 23, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, calories alone aren't that interesting or useful.

Posted by: staticvars | March 23, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Its information that I personally want though I don't think it will make a meaningful difference in people's eating habits. More likely I think it will affect the menu designers who will feel more pressure to make healthy sounding meals not completely gluttonous.

Posted by: spotatl | March 23, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see it and glad to see it will not affect small local places.

I can't wait to see the sodium counts...

Posted by: vintagejulie | March 23, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see this. A few years ago I was on a diet where I was counting calories. There was a chain that advertised its food as healthy but I could not find out the calorie info on their website so I emailed the company and they flat out refused to tell me! I will use this info but there is a lot more to good nutrition that just calories.

Posted by: caed | March 23, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I think it's a great idea. Knowledge is power. Whether this will make for healthier choices at mealtime is doubtful, at least not immediately. But times, they are a changing... biscuits with gravy anyone?

Posted by: MichelleRodulfo | March 23, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

What next, restaurants placing information about the price of their food on the menu?? Nutrition labeling on goods purchased at the grocery store?!


Posted by: jeffwacker | March 23, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

"this is good information for people to have. In 20 years, I think we'll be baffled that there was a time when it wasn't easily available to us."


It doesn't take a whole lot of brainpower to figure out that while sugar and fat taste good, they are high in calories. Further, how many people actually know how many calories they should consume in a day, and of that group, how many are regularly eating at franchises that would be hit by the rule?

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 23, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse


Yes, the sodium numbers, which you might already suspect are large in chain restaurants, are nonetheless jaw-droppingly huge when you finally see them (here in CA since the law went into effect s couple years ago). Despite most commenters above concentration on fat and calories, sodium and its contribution to hypertension is far more insidious since it is less obvious than "fat." Add the increased hypertension risk from prepared foods (not just fast food) to the various genetic clotting factor risks among the population (only recently understood from genetic research within the past 15 years) and you realize that the reporting and public discussion of the stroke-risk posed by sodium additives is seriously underdone.

Posted by: tomjf | March 24, 2010 1:33 AM | Report abuse

I, for one, still fully intend on eating at Coldstone; even if the fact of one milkshake equaling more than my daily recommended caloric intake is staring me in the face the whole time. mmmmmmm cake batter...

Posted by: CraigBettenhausen | March 26, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company